Starfish touch tank, New England Aquarium

Up Close and Personal with the Fish at New England Aquarium

Once home to the world’s largest aquarium tank, New England Aquarium still has plenty to boast about. There is a shark and ray touch tank, a tidal pool exhibit for touching and handling various sea creatures, an outdoor seal exhibit, and of course, an abundant supply of marine life!

Jellyfish, New England Aquarium

The first thing to see on the way in are the jellyfish, gorgeous moon jellies, floating through dark water, tentacles gracefully following. The jellyfish room, downstairs from the ray and shark touch tank, has several tanks, and can be quite hypnotic. Most on display are semi-transparent, and their aquariums are lit so as to enhance the feeling of other-worldliness.

Next stop is the new shark and ray touch tank. Here’s a hint: pass by the beginning of the tank and find a spot close in further down. It will be less crowded. Once close to the tank you can see cownose rays, bonnethead sharks, Atlantic rays and epaulette sharks. If you are patient, still, and lucky, you may even get to pet one. The sharks and rays will slip silently under your hand if they wish to be petted.

Petting the rays, New England Aquarium
Petting the rays
Rockhopper Penguin, New England Aquarium
Rockhopper Penguin

Now it’s time to enter the Aquarium proper. On the first floor, surrounding the gargantuan tank, are the penguins. Fun to look at even when they are standing still, there are more than 80 birds living here. African penguins that bray like donkeys, rockhoppers with wild “hair”, and the tiny blue penguins, the smallest penguin species in the world. Watching them play and swim is great fun, especially from the underwater periscope. Some part of the penguin exhibit is visible from every floor.

From here it’s up, either around the giant ocean tank in the center, or floor by floor along the outside of the building. Most people choose the tank, so if you go the other way you will be walking against the flow of traffic.

Giant Ocean tank and part of the penguin exhibit, New England Aquarium
Giant Ocean tank and part of the penguin exhibit

The giant tank gives you a view of a Caribbean coral reef, top to bottom to side to side. Most famous resident? Myrtle the green sea turtle, who has been with the Aquarium since June of 1970. Living with Myrtle are over 600 other animals, including more sea turtles, a nurse shark, barracuda, stingrays, moray eels and hundreds of colorful fishes. One of the best ways to see the larger animals is to go up to the top and look down.

It’s interesting to note that the coral in this exhibit is artificial, handmade and painted by Aquarium artists, and difficult to distinguish from the real thing. (At least, the resident of the tank can’t tell.) Starting this September, the tank will be rebuilt and transformed, all while the rest of the Aquarium stays open.

The exhibits along the outside of the building are divided by habitats. There are six separate Amazon exhibits, some with windows nearly floor to ceiling. The Pacific Reef Community has nearly 70 different kinds of tropical reef fishes, including Coral cat and epaulette sharks. A personal favorite are the seadragons: both the leafy seadragon and the weedy seadragon species. The Seadragon Exhibit also includes many species of invertebrates and fishes that naturally coexist with seadragons in the Australian temperate reefs.

Starfish touch tank, New England Aquarium
Starfish touch tank

Something more familiar with most Aquarium visitors is the Gulf of Maine, which stretches from Cape Cod to Canada and includes Boston Harbor. The Edge of the Sea touch tank is part of this exhibit. Here adults and children alike can pet a sea star, meet a lobster, or cradle a hermit crab in the palm of your hand. Aquarium educators are always present to answer any questions.

Outside the building, on the harbor side, is the Marine Marine Mammal Center, including the Atlantic Harbor Seals exhibit. Other animals here are the California sea lions and the Northern fur seals. The current seal program highlights the energy, strength and flexibility of this sea mammal. On Fridays there is are special training sessions called Stretching with the Seals at 12:30 and 2:45 p.m.

In front of the Aquarium is the IMAX theatre, with a screen 65′ high by 85′ wide – taller than a six story building. Right now there are four different shows playing, all in 3D: To the Arctic, Born to be Wild, Deep Sea and Under the Sea. The time of the show determines which movie is playing. Enterance to the IMAX theatre is not included in the price of admission.

The New England Aquarium also offers Whale Watch tours, leaving from Boston Harbor. There are naturalists and educators from the Aquarium on board to answer any questions, and each tour takes about 4 hours. The boat goes out to Stellwagen Bank Marine Sanctuary, where it is possible to see whales, dolphins, sea birds and other marine life.

Go see it!

The New England Aquarium is extremely easy to get to by the MBTA, just get off at the station called “Aquarium”, on the Blue Line.  This stop is also where to get off for Whale Watching cruises, and it’s on the east side of Quincy Market/Fanuel Hall, a great place to stop for lunch first.

If going by car, the street address is 1 Central Wharf. Go to the Aquarium website for directions from the North or South; even the locals can sometimes get lost getting there. There is available parking, none of which is operated by the Aquarium, and prices vary.

Or, since the Aquarium is in Boston Harbor, why not get there by boat? The Boston arrival of the Harbor Express Commuter Boats is about 100 yards away.

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Disclosure: I received free entrance to the New England Aquarium, along with tickets to the IMAX Theatre, for the purpose of this review. As always, my opinions are mine alone.

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