The Best Aquariums on the Coast
Monterey Bay Aquarium, Monterey, California
Exhibits in this converted cannery concentrate on the cool things found just outside in restless Monterey Bay. Wolf-eels and sardines glide through a three-story kelp forest. Artificial waves crash over a walk-through acrylic tunnel, providing life-giving moisture to the weird creatures that inhabit tide pools. Irresistibly cute sea otters cavort. The million-gallon Open Sea tank showcases bluefin tuna, hammerhead sharks, and other open-ocean denizens. Nearby, in startling contrast, float ethereally beautiful jellyfish. Outdoor decks offer views of the bay―and, occasionally, passing whales; 831-648-4000 or montereybayaquarium.org.
Oregon Coast Aquarium, Newport, Oregon
Unlike the world-ranging mega-aquariums, the friendly, medium-size Oregon Coast Aquarium concentrates on (as the name implies) Oregon's coast. Fortunately, lots of compelling things live there, including turtles, sea otters, seals, sea lions, many kinds of birds, and an amazing variety of jellyfish. For an added fee, "Animal Encounters" lets visitors smooch sea lions and shake “hands” with Pacific octopus; 541-867-3474 or aquarium.org.
Moody Gardens, Galveston, Texas
Frolicking penguins and seals delight all ages. Close-up views of sharks via an underwater tunnel supply more shuddery thrills. As a bonus, the blue-glass pyramid that houses the aquarium stands as part of a diverse entertainment and education complex. Other attractions include the Rainforest Pyramid (tropical plants and birds), the Discovery Museum (science exhibits), an IMAX theater, a paddle-wheel excursion boat, and a hotel with a spa; 800-582-4673 or moodygardens.com.
National Aquarium in Baltimore, Maryland
With more than 20,000 fish, birds, amphibians, reptiles, and marine animals in award-winning habitats, the National Aquarium is a must-visit. The aquarium, located on Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, features 10+ exhibits that range from an Amazon River Forest (you’ll see the emerald tree boa, piranha, and dwarf caiman) to the award-winning Blacktip Reef (where blacktip reef sharks, zebra sharks, a 500-pound green sea turtle, and honeycomb stingrays glide around brightly hued coral). The Living Seashore exhibit brings the mid-Atlantic coastline to life, replicating the beaches and waters with plenty of hands-on touches, from digital interactions to touch pools where skates, stingrays, and horseshoe crabs, reside; 410-576-3800 or aqua.org.
John G. Shedd Aquarium, Chicago, Illinois
One of the oldest aquariums (it opened in 1929, though the fish didn't arrive until the next year), the Shedd thinks big. The Beaux Arts grandeur of the original building hints at the scope of the experiences within. The aquarium re-creates environments from all over the world, including Caribbean and Philippine reefs, Pacific Northwest seas, the Amazon River, Africa, Australia, and the Great Lakes. Immense curved windows in the Oceanarium wing show off sweeping views of Lake Michigan; 312-939-2438 or sheddaquarium.org.
Mystic Aquarium, Mystic, Connecticut
Relatively small but ambitious, Mystic Aquarium ranges over much of the earth, displaying penguins, cownose rays, sea lions, beluga whales, and, from the Amazon rain forest, piranhas. It also rescues whales, dolphins, and other injured marine animals; 860-572-5955 or mysticaquarium.org.
The Florida Aquarium, Tampa, Florida
The aquarium's arching glass roof has become a focal point for the redevelopment of Tampa's waterfront. The focus on Florida species probably makes it more interesting for out-of-state tourists than locals. Still, the Coral Reef Gallery, with its panoramic windows and walk-through tunnel, packs quite a visual wallop. Children love Explore-A-Shore, a watery playground with animal shows. Extra-cost bonuses allow visitors to swim with fish (including sharks) or take a two-hour boat eco-tour of Tampa Bay; 813-273-4000 or flaquarium.org.
New England Aquarium, Boston, Massachusetts
Sea turtles, penguins, sea lions, seals, and more splash throughout the waters of the New England Aquarium, which centers around its Giant Ocean Tank, where Myrtle the green sea turtle has lived since 1970. In the Blue Planet Action Center, the aquarium’s dedication to conservation and protection are on display (exhibits on the impacts of climate change, acidification of coral, and more). Outside, daily whale watching excursion depart on the search for whales, dolphins, sea birds, and more in the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary; 617-973-5200 or neaq.org
South Carolina Aquarium, Charleston, South Carolina
Home to the state’s only hospital for sick and injured sea turtles (which you can tour every day at noon and 2 pm), the South Carolina Aquarium, located on the harbor in Charleston, has released more than 150 healthy turtles back to the ocean since opening in 2000. The aquarium features native species in its mountains-to-sea habitat, including river otters, a bald eagle, sharks and stingrays, horseshoe crabs, and more; 800-722-6455 or scaquarium.org.
Vancouver Aquarium, Vancouver, British Columbia
Exhibits cover everything from the Amazon rain forest to an Indonesian coral reef to the nearby waters of Pacific Canada. Sharks, sea otters, dolphins, and sea lions all draw crowds. But the Arctic Canada exhibit shows off the true stars: long, lean, ghost-white beluga whales. The belugas perform several shows a day. The extra-cost Beluga Encounter allows guests to participate in feeding and training sessions, and includes one-on-one meetings with the sleek cetaceans; 604-659-3474 or www.vanaqua.org.