People visit aquariums for many reasons — to explore beneath the sea, watch wonders such as sea horses and jellyfish, experience the beauty and color of coral reefs, and get up-close with thrilling creatures like sharks and sea lions — all without getting wet.
“Aquariums inspire and calm us,” Nichols says. “We go to boost our creativity and have deep thoughts; connect to ourselves and those we are with; grow our empathy and compassion; and to experience happiness and peace of mind.”
Accredited aquariums — those that focus on education, conservation, and research — teach us about the importance of the watery 71 percent of our planet and how we all can help ensure this underwater world thrives for future generations to enjoy.
Here are 10 of the best U.S. aquariums (in no particular order) with responsible management, stunning exhibits, and unique experiences.
1. Monterey Bay Aquarium, Monterey, California
Located on the shores of Monterey Bay, this facility features design elements to immerse you (pun intended) in its exhibits. Lean into a concave window to feel surrounded by a 28-foot tall Kelp Forest inhabited by sardines, leopard sharks, wolf-eels, and octopuses. Watch playful sea otters above and below the water and stand before one of the world’s largest windows — 90 feet across — at the Open Sea exhibit, where sleek Bluefin tuna, scalloped hammerheads, moon jellies, and sea turtles swim. From outdoor decks, look for wild marine life such as sea otters and humpback whales in the bay.
2. Aquarium of the Pacific, Long Beach, California
Experience Southern and Baja California’s rich marine life, including sea lions, giant spined sea stars, and butterflyfish, and see Northern Pacific residents such as sea otters, puffins, and jellies. A Tropical Pacific exhibit teems with thousands of colorful reef fish, seahorses, and sea dragons. More than 150 sand tiger, zebra, whitetip reef, bamboo, and epaulette sharks prowl the outdoor Shark Lagoon. The Magellanic penguin exhibit features a crawl space and tunnel for viewing the sleek birds in the water. This aquarium also offers two-hour voyages to see migrating gray whales in the open ocean.
3. Texas State Aquarium, Corpus Christi, Texas
This aquarium faces and focuses on the vibrant Gulf of Mexico. An exhibit on its Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary contains a tropical coral reef inhabited by blue tang, wrasse, filefish, and parrotfish, as well as rays and eels. Islands of Steel recreates a marine habitat beneath the Gulf’s many oil platforms, which attract large schools of red drum, crevalle jack, pompano, and other fish, plus sea turtles, sharks, and rays. Indoor touch pools contain hermit crabs, sharks, and rays, while outdoors, otters, sea turtles, and alligators live where a boardwalk extends into a marsh on Corpus Christi Bay.
4. Audubon Aquarium of the Americas, New Orleans, Louisiana
The Audubon Nature Institute complex, which also includes a zoo and insectarium, overlooks the mighty Mississippi River. A gallery in the aquarium offers river views and the freshwater gallery showcases some of the river’s inhabitants — catfish, sturgeon, paddlefish, and alligators. A quarter-scale replica of an offshore oil rig occupies a Gulf of Mexico exhibit packed with sharks, stingrays, schools of fish, and sea turtles. Other exhibits highlight frogs, jellies, seahorses, tropical fish, piranhas, and penguins. Special programs include private backstage penguin encounters and scuba diving or snorkeling in the Great Maya Reef.
5. Shedd Aquarium, Chicago, Illinois
This neoclassical temple of white marble and terra cotta on the shore of Lake Michigan first opened in 1930. Many visitors head straight for a huge, art-deco round tank beneath the dome, where Caribbean reef denizens circle hypnotically. The Abbott Oceanarium features Pacific Northwest life, such as beluga whales, Pacific white-sided dolphins, sea lions, and sea otters. An expansive Wild Reef recreates a Philippine fishing village and coral reef populated by sharks, stingrays, and dazzling colored fishes. See piranhas, tarantulas, monkeys, an anaconda, and fruit-eating fish called tambaqui in the Amazon Rising exhibit.
6. Tennessee Aquarium, Chattanooga, Tennessee
This aquarium traces freshwater from the forest down the Tennessee and Ohio Rivers, into the Mississippi River then its delta and, finally, the Gulf of Mexico. The journey includes salamanders, sturgeon, catfish, turtles, ducks, and alligators. Other exhibits cover life in rivers around the world, including the Amazon, Congo, Volga, and Fly. This includes tropical oceans, an undersea cavern, and boneless creatures such as the giant Pacific octopus, cuttlefish, and jellyfish. Join a two-hour boat cruise with a naturalist guide down the scenic, 26-mile Tennessee River Gorge to see wildlife, plants, and historic sites.
7. New England Aquarium, Boston, Massachusetts
At the four-story Giant Ocean Tank — so big it went up first, then the rest of the aquarium was built around it — view more than 1,000 animals, including stingrays, eels, reef fish, and sea turtles. Gulf of Maine exhibits range from the shore to deep waters and house lobsters, cod, goosefish, dogfish sharks, giant sea stars, and birds. The aquarium also has six Amazon exhibits, shark and lobster nurseries, an outdoor harbor seal exhibit, sea dragons, California sea lions and fur seals, and penguins. Search for humpback, finback, minke, pilot, and right whales on the aquarium’s Whale Watch cruises.
8. National Aquarium, Baltimore, Maryland
This facility represents an alliance between the nation’s first public aquarium, established in 1873, and the Congressionally designated National Aquarium on the harbor in Baltimore. It features Blacktip Reef, an Indo-Pacific reef home to more than 700 animals, including a school of blacktip reef sharks, and an Atlantic Coral Reef exhibit where bonnethead sharks, moray eels, and spotfin porcupinefish swim. The residents of Shark Alley include sandbar and sand tiger sharks, largetooth sawfish, and roughtail stingrays. And if you want more, you can sign up for a sleepover with the sharks, complete with dinner, films, and tours.
9. North Carolina Aquariums, Fort Fisher, North Carolina
The North Carolina Aquariums include four facilities: Roanoke, currently closed for renovations; Pine Knoll Shores, which follows underwater life from mountain peaks to the Atlantic; Jeanette’s Pier, which offers personalized angling instruction; and Fort Fisher. The Fort Fisher location traces the Cape Fear River from freshwater streams and swamps to coastline and open ocean, featuring alligators, sea turtles, rays, eels, lobster, freshwater carp, and striped bass. Plus, meet sea stars, horseshoe crabs, and sharks in touch tanks; explore a nearby island by canoe with trained guides; or learn to surf fish on the beach with an aquarium instructor.
10. Vancouver Aquarium, Vancouver, British Columbia
Experience Canada’s Arctic creatures: char and cod, beluga whales and bizarre anemones, amphipods and copepods. In Treasures of the B.C. Coast, learn about residents of nearby sand flats, kelp beds, and rocky shores — including hagfish, seastars, rockfish, and octopus — and see rescued Pacific white-sided dolphins, false killer whales, sea otters, porpoises, seals, and sea lions in the Wild Coast exhibit. A Pacific Canada Pavilion features thousands of herring schooling around halibut, crabs, and various fishes, including the critically endangered bocaccio rockfish. Warm up with the Tropic Zone gallery’s sea turtle, sharks, seahorses, mouth-breeding cichlids, and clownfish.
MELISSA GASKILL is an Austin-based writer who loves exploring the aquariums of North America.