Looking In.

Octopus at the Dauphin Island Estuarium.

When I was four my family took a trip to Maine with an uncle, aunt, and cousins. We stayed in a cabin on Green Lake and fished and picked blueberries and did other various Maine things, including slipping briefly into Canada, but what I remember most vividly is an aquarium we visited one day. There was a touch tank where a woman talked about the various animals and I was the only one who’d hold a sea cucumber, and there was a tank full of live scallops. Another woman put a starfish in the tank to show us how scallops, when threatened, can actually swim away. We stopped at another roadside aquarium that was much smaller—I only remember the touch tank, which I think was in the main lobby, but it was still a neat place.

I’ve become kind of a connoisseur of aquaria over the years. If we go somewhere and there’s an aquarium I’ll visit it. Sometimes I’ll even wander into pet stores just to look at the fish, although I’ve learned the hard way that a home aquarium is a lot of work. It’s said that watching fish in an aquarium is very relaxing and you need it if you have to do all the maintenance, but that’s another story.

Here are some of the aquaria I’ve visited over the years:

-Really spectacular and one I highly recommend. My wife and I went several years ago on a trip to Atlanta and the main thing I remember is one of the first exhibits we came to was a tank where you could pet stingrays, which is always fun. It has multi-level tanks and also tunnels that take you completely under the water.

The Oklahoma Aquarium-If you look at a map and notice that Oklahoma is pretty far from any ocean shoreline you won’t be surprised that the Oklahoma Aquarium is small and, while it has a few nice exhibits, including some cool ones of jellyfish, it’s not that great. At one time they had an octopus. When I went it had died and they had it preserved under a glass dome which seemed like a terrible thing to do to such a noble creature. If you’re in Tulsa and looking for something to do go to the zoo.   

The Florida Aquarium-Another spectacular and highly recommended one. I went there with my parents a few years ago and one of the best parts was a large horseshoe crab exhibit, and we just happened to be there for horseshoe crab mating season. There was also a large Pacific octopus that, being nocturnal, seemed to be asleep and completely bunched up against the glass, but it was still a thrill to be so close to such a noble creature.

The Tennessee Aquarium-In spite of the fact that Tennessee is also deeply landlocked this aquarium in Chattanooga is absolutely magnificent and well worth the visit. There were amazing exhibits of seahorses and leafy sea dragons, and one tank with several cuttlefish. The cuttlefish appeared to be asleep but, hey, I have a thing for cephalopods, obviously, and it was really interesting to be so close to them.

The Aquarium Of The Pacific-Located in Long Beach, California, this one’s not one of the bigger aquaria I’ve visited, and, unlike others, was specifically focused only on animals of the Pacific, but I’ve been there twice and still feel like I didn’t see everything. It has some enormous multi-level tanks and great exhibits, including grass eels. There’s also an outdoor area with touch tanks that have anemones in them. I asked the woman there if the anemones really were safe to touch. She could have been sarcastic but instead just laughed nicely and said, “Go ahead and try!” They were lovely and soft, and it may have just been my imagination that I felt a bit of a tingling.

North Carolina Aquarium on Roanoke Island-This one was surprisingly small for an aquarium located so close to the ocean, but still a nice way to spend a couple of hours. There was a small live octopus in one tank when we were there, and I could have watched it for at least a couple of hours. It was very active and looking for a way out.

Newport Aquarium-Located on the Kentucky/Ohio border this is another one that proves you can be completely landlocked and still have an amazing aquarium. The Newport Aquarium remains one of my favorites because it has the most brilliant pairing of exhibits ever. As you walk through you’ll come to the otter exhibit, a large room made of faux rock with an opaque glass ceiling and, of course, otters hopping and swimming in their pool which is set up high so you can look them in the eye. It’s bright and loud and everything echoes and the otters make everyone scream with delight so you can get overloaded. But then you walk into the jellyfish room which is lit only by the light from the tanks. The walls and floor are covered with burgundy fabric and there are soft seats where you can sit and just watch the jellyfish glide back and forth.

The Dauphin Island Estuarium-This is another little one set on the edge of the sea, but they have a stingray and shark petting tank—and I recommend sticking around for feeding time. It has a wonderful river exhibit with several kinds of turtles and a large tank with grouper and other sizable fish, and seahorses and, the last time I was there, a live octopus, and she was just magnificent. Sadly octopuses don’t live very long, even under the best conditions, and a woman who worked there told me they only have one if local fishermen bring one in. Most are so stressed from being caught they don’t survive, but this one was in fine shape and I watched her change color from cream to purple to pale orange. They also have a touch tank with horseshoe crabs and if you’re lucky you’ll be there during mating season.  

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  1. M.L. James

    How fun! I remember going to the one in Monterey, CA. I was smitten with the seahorses. Matter of fact, I have a glass seahorse memento from there that hangs in my office as a reminder. Dallas has one, but I’ve never been. I have no idea how it ranks in the hierarchy of aquariums, but it’s nice to know we do. My kids have both been…I don’t remember why I wasn’t able to go, though. I was probably triple booked or something. One of these days I’d love to visit. Is it wrong to now feel hungry for seafood? Not octopus, of course. Shrimp would be tasty right about now, though! Also, I loved the video! Perfect! Mona

    1. Christopher Waldrop (Post author)

      Mona, if I’m ever in Dallas maybe we could make a group outing to the aquarium there. I’d love to see it. And I’m glad you mentioned seahorses because I think they’re really cool too. The Dauphin Island Estuarium has a small tank of seahorses tucked into a corner, which I think is a shame because they really deserve to be displayed more prominently. The Tennessee aquarium, on the other hand, has big tanks of both seahorses and even leafy sea dragons which I sometimes have trouble believing are really real.

  2. Allison

    The Atlanta aquarium is lovely, and I’m partial to the Tennessee Aquarium. While the zoo in New Orleans is spectacular, the aquarium is just… OK. I was in Monterrey, CA and wanted to go to that one, but I was there for work. I sent our sales guy though – he had several tanks at home and was a scuba fanatic – so he needed that more than I did.

    I love watching fish. It’s as close to landing on another planet with intelligent life as I will ever get!

    1. Christopher Waldrop (Post author)

      Going to an aquarium as a scuba fanatic, or even just someone who’s scuba certified, must really be something because there are places where they’ll let scuba divers actually go into the big tanks. Sometimes I think that’s the only way I’d ever be willing to scuba dive–it’s a lot safer than the open ocean, but then you pretty much have to go into open water to get scuba certified in the first place, so I’m in a bit of a catch-22.
      And I really like watching fish too. It’s been a long time since I’ve been to The Aquatic Critter on Nolensville Road but that used to be my old hood and I went there pretty frequently, sometimes just to look at all the fish.


    I love aquaria too, Chris, and the ones that stand out for me right now are, of course, the Boston Aquarium, the Mystic Connecticut Aquarium (where we petted sting rays), and the enormous one at Disney World (which I’ll be seeing again next month). Thanks for this wonderful exhibit.

    1. Christopher Waldrop (Post author)

      The Boston Aquarium stands out for me as one to visit for many reasons, including the way it was described in the book Soul Of An Octopus. But of course the people are an important part of it too.
      I hope you enjoy the one in Disney World. The last time I was there was the year before they installed it. I think perhaps a return is in order.


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