Lots of things to see at the National Aquarium
It’s hard to believe that another summer has almost passed us by. My kids have already been attending school for a week. And although it’s been hot as heck, the sunlight has a different quality about it than at the height of summer.
“Carpe diem” is a phrase we use a lot at home, so the day before the kiddos returned to school our family took a day trip to Baltimore for one last hurrah before they traded flip-flops for school-appropriate footwear.
Our destination was a place I’ve been to many times over the course of my life, the National Aquarium. It opened in the Inner Harbor in 1981, and I’ve been visiting nearly every year or so of my life since then, even attending camp there one memorable summer as a child.
It has been said that time passes more quickly the older one gets, and I certainly felt that way during my trip to the National Aquarium. While some of the exhibits stand the test of time and are relatively unchanged even since I was a child, a lot was different since my last visit.
Upon entering the building, there is an entirely new exhibit that showcases some of the fauna from Australia. This exhibit was of great interest to us, as one of our family pets is a cockatiel, a bird somewhat exotic in the U.S., but indigenous to Australia. There were lots of birds to see flying around, eating and preening, including quite a few cockatiels, but the star of the exhibit was a school of flashy silver fish with quite a splashy way of getting their dinner.
About a dozen footlong seven-spot archerfish congregated in one of the pools near the surface, and we quickly found out why. Much to our delight, one of the Aquarium’s many volunteers demonstrated how the archerfish catches its food. She put a cricket on the end of a long stick and held it over the fish tank, but it didn’t stay there long. After a few seconds, the archerfish spit streams of water, much like a garden hose on the “jet” setting, that knocked the cricket off the stick, and it was quickly devoured. The fish did it over and over again, rarely missing.
One of the exhibits that has been a constant over the years at the National Aquarium is the floor that showcases all of the aquatic habitats of the various regions of Maryland.
From the Alleghany stream to the Atlantic shelf, there are a lot of species represented. The tidal marsh display is quite realistic; it’s open air and you can actually smell the authenticity. If you read my fishing report and wonder what some of the fish that are discussed look like, the displays are a great way to see bluegill, flounder, tautog, red drum and kingfish, among many others, up close and personal.
On the next floor a new exhibit that opened last year called “The Living Seashore” includes lots of hands-on and interactive
activities for little ones. The touch pool has horseshoe crabs and sea urchins, which you can also see and touch locally at the Calvert Marine Museum in Solomons, but the National Aquarium has another touch tank teeming with moon jellies and several sharp staff members on hand to answer questions about them.
We had a lot of questions and I was quite impressed with the level of professionalism and knowledge of the young biologists. It turns out that although moon jellies do sting, their stings are quite weak and can’t penetrate human skin, so even young kids can feel them safely. Touching moon jellies was a bit of a thrill for my kids and something not available locally.
Some things never change at the National Aquarium. The piped-in animal sounds on the escalators makes me smile at the corniness. The blind cavefish swimming around in the dark are a familiar sight and my neck is always a little sore after the rainforest exhibit from looking up so long trying to spot one of those elusive sloths. The new exhibits were a welcome change on this visit. There was one other noticeable change though, and this one was a little more profound.
I remember in the early 1990s when the National Aquarium became much larger with the addition of the Marine Mammal Pavilion to house their dolphins and — back then — beluga whales. And of course I remember just a few short years ago taking my kids to see the dolphin show at the Aquarium. That show, however, is a thing of the past.
The untimely death of a trainer at Sea World in Florida in 2010 brought a decades-old controversy to the forefront of the news. Animal rights activists and environmentalists had long opposed keeping whales and dolphins in captivity, but now ordinary people were starting to protest the practice as well. In response, in 2012 the National Aquarium canceled the live dolphin show that used to take place four times a day.
Now visitors can see the dolphins throughout the day at their leisure.
There are eight scheduled programs each day, dubbed “Dolphin Discovery,” where feeding and training can be observed. But there is no more raucous music, flashy videos or theatrical stunts.
The National Aquarium had to compensate for lost revenue from dolphin show ticket sales by padding the price of the regular admission, but that’s a small price to pay for healthier and happier dolphins. And the National Aquarium has made a commitment to move the dolphins to a seaside enclosure by 2020. This decision fits in nicely with the Aquarium’s vision of educating people about the conservation of these intelligent creatures.
There are only a few more precious days of summer vacation for most of the youngsters in Southern Maryland. The heat can make it tough to find things to do outside as a family, but the air-conditioned National Aquarium is just an hour or two drive from Southern Maryland and makes a great destination for a family to learn more about the animals in our backyard and around the planet. jamiedrakeoutdoors@outlook. com