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Sunday, July 7, 2013

Zoo Review: Virginia Aquarium and Marine Science Center

Before I begin this review, I feel a disclaimer is in order.

When I visited the Virginia Aquarium and Marine Science Center, two of the aquarium's most popular attractions – the seal exhibit and the aviary – were closed for repairs.  Having never visited this institution before, you’d think that these would be pretty disappointing, and they were.  That being said, I like to think that being in the profession makes me a lot more understanding of such things than many visitors would be – it’s not like I’ve never had to pull a very popular animal from exhibit for any number of reasons.  I tried to base my review on the parts of the aquarium that I did see.

And I loved it!  VAMSC has taken the cake, as far as I’m concerned, as one of the best aquariums in America.  What makes this so amazing is that it does this almost entirely with native Virginia wildlife – a few reptilian exceptions – and without cetaceans.  Exhibits are innovative and fun – visitors can view sharks from what appears to be the control deck of a submarine, or pop up in an acrylic dome in the middle of the Komodo dragon display.  Visitors could look behind-the-scenes to observe a sea turtle nursery to see how aquarium staff were helping to protect endangered sea turtle species.  For the first time that I can recall, I went to an otter exhibit were someone actually had the foresight to have benches – rows of them – facing the animals to encourage visitors to sit and stay for a while.  The tomistoma exhibit is probably the single best, most beautiful indoor crocodilian habitat I’ve ever seen in a zoo or aquarium; I consider myself lucky that I was the first one there in the morning and caught the crocs at eye level right up against the glass, before the crowds drove them away.   

What makes the Virginia Aquarium and Marine Science Center so spectacular is space.  Most of the great aquariums – Baltimore, Chicago, Atlanta – are urban attractions, and have to deal with an urban footprint.  The VAMSC has room to spread out its campus, and is does so magnificently.  The animal collection is divided into two buildings, separated by a meandering nature trail.  One functions as more of the traditional aquarium, the other as more of a native reptile and amphibian house (this second building also houses the otters and the aviary).  As I walked along the trail, climbed its observation towers, and peered out through windows in the buildings, I saw pelicans, mergansers, and loons swimming by.  A (wild) bald eagle scooped a fish out of the water in front of dozens of astonished visitors!  In some senses, the best exhibits at the aquarium were the ones the aquarium never developed.

There is a trend among aquariums, I feel, to dumb-down a bit lately until they become small, indoor zoos.  I’ve noticed aquariums going for less and less fish species and displays and relying more on “zoo animals” to win visitors over – big cats, hippos, primates, etc.  It’s refreshing to see an aquarium that, by and large, is sticking with being an aquarium – and a native one at that.  Any vacation to Virginia Beach would be incomplete without a trip to the Virginia Aquarium and Marine Science Center.

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