Lots of things to see at the Na­tional Aquar­ium

Maryland Independent - - Sports - Jamie Drake

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

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