Did you know that nearly ½ of the species in the ocean live in coral reefs? Or that coral is actually a small jellyfish-type species that has built up a protective limestone coating? And that sharks are an important part of reef health? While the healthier fish find protection in the coral, the sick or injured are often unable to protect themselves against sharks. While Bruce from Finding Nemo may say “fish are friends, not food,” some fish need to become food to maintain the overall health and balance of the reef.
These are just few of the facts my kids and I learned at the National Aquarium in Baltimore, Md., during our behind-the-scenes tour of their new exhibit, Blacktip Reef. Opening this summer, Blacktip Reef is one of the country’s most comprehensive recreations of an Indo-Pacific reef. Featuring a school of sleek and fast-moving blacktip reef sharks, known for the distinctive and prominent black tips on their fins, the exhibit offers 15 other major marine life species and more than 60 additional varieties of fish.
With our hard hats in place, we learned that more than 2,700 pieces of replicated coral were used to create the exhibit. It had to be specially formulated with a slightly flexible material so that Calypso, the Aquarium’s 400-pound green sea turtle, would not break pieces off as she swam by or tried to scratch her shell. We experienced the floor-to-ceiling viewing area that allows guests to virtually step inside the exhibit and come face to face with the reef’s inhabitants. General Curator Jack Cover pointed out that the exhibit is designed with families in mind. “The type of coral changes as you go deeper, so it can be a different experience for everyone in the family. Kids will notice things on their eye-level that the adults might not.”
And Blacktip Reef is just the “tip” of the iceberg at the National Aquarium. The jellyfish exhibit is the best I’ve ever seen.
My daughter loved the dolphin show and could have watched them for hours in the underwater viewing area.
My favorite spot was the Animal Planet Australia: Wild Extremes exhibit. Housed in a gorgeous glass pavilion, this area had a three-story waterfall, lush décor, and birds, reptiles and fish from Australia.
As you make your way through the Aquarium, you ascend 5 levels from Blacktip Reef up to the Tropical Rain Forest, then wind your way back down through an Atlantic Coral Reef and Shark Alley. You walk a short distance (indoors) to adjoining pavilions to visit the Australia: Wild Extremes exhibit and Dolphin Discovery areas. Knowledgeable keepers are readily available to answer your questions and there are talks, dives, feedings and live animal encounters throughout the day. There are two cafes, as well as several kiosks offering drinks and quick snacks. And here’s a tip about the gift shops: Everything you might encounter at small kiosks is available at the main gift shop. My daughter was upset that I made her wait to buy a souvenir. I didn’t want to carry anything around and I also thought she might find something she liked better. She didn’t think we’d find the same dolphin bracelet once we left the dolphin area – but we did (and so much more!).
If you’re in the Baltimore/Washington area, or if you’re driving by on I-95, the National Aquarium is a great place to stop for the day. It’s easy to access off the highways, parking is across the street, and a plethora of food, shopping and entertainment are within walking distance.
Learn more at the National Aquarium web site.