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Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Zoo Review: National Aquarium in Baltimore

Thirty years ago, when Baltimore mayor William Donald Schaefer sought to revitalize Baltimore's Inner Harbor, he decided that the city needed a crown jewel as an anchor.  That crown jewel, the National Aquarium in Baltimore, is now the number one tourist attraction in the state of Maryland, often regarded as one of the country's finest.  Anyone needing a reminder of its excellence has only to visit the new Blacktip Reef exhibit, which opened earlier this year.  Situated in the main lobby of the aquarium, more than two dozen gorgeous blacktip reef sharks (and one massive green sea turtle) glide around a beautifully reconstructed coral reef.

The aquarium's extensive collection is organized on several floors throughout its three-building campus.  The themed galleries start on the second floor with "Maryland: Mountains to the Sea", where a variety of open-air tanks depict various Maryland habitats, from the Allegheny Mountains to the Atlantic coast.  The gallery ends in a display of fish from the Chesapeake Bay.  On the next floor, "Surviving" highlights aquatic creatures with unique adaptations, such as electric eels, giant Pacific octopus, and blind cave fish. On the next floor, Atlantic puffins and other seabirds clamber over wave-splashed rocks in another popular exhibit.

In what be my favorite aquarium exhibit of any species anywhere, visitors take a series of ramps descending through an Atlantic coral reef, eventually arriving in the center of a dark, silent, circular tank.  Sand tiger sharks, nurse sharks, and sawfish glide silently past visitors, who constantly race ahead to get another, oncoming view of these incredible predators.  Bottlenose dolphins inhabit a separate pavilion nearby; the popular dolphin shows have been phased out and replaced by constant training and husbandry demonstrations, facilitated by interpreters.  To access it, visitors cross a glassed-in bridge over the harbor, which offers beautiful views of the Baltimore skyline.

The Coast (Left) and Tidal Marsh (Right) in the Maryland: Mountains to the Sea Gallery

Like many aquariums, Baltimore displays creatures not considered traditional aquarium species.  Two separate exhibit halls take guests away from the oceans.  Upstairs in the main building (inside the aquarium's famous glass pyramid), sloths, monkeys, and free-flying birds make their home in the Amazon Rainforest.  Fish, snakes, and the most impressive collection of poison dart frogs I've ever seen are found in side galleries nearby (the largest being the Amazon River Forest tank).  Meanwhile, in a separate building - the aquarium's most recent expansion - the denizens of Down Under can be seen in Australia: Wild Extremes.  Freshwater crocodiles, Fly River turtles, monitor lizards, and pythons share display tanks with a variety of Aussie fish (including barramundi, prehistoric-looking lungfish, and some massive rays) while Australian birds and flying foxes glide overhead.

The two biggest complaints that visitors have about the aquarium are that it is expensive (aquariums typically are more expensive than zoos) and that it is crowded.  Both are, admittedly, true.  Still, the mid-Atlantic region has several fine zoos, both large (Baltimore, National, Philadelphia) and small (Salisbury, Cape May). A great, world class aquarium is a far rarer find, especially if you've never been to one before.  Pop by the National Aquarium in Baltimore, and you may find that the expense and the crowds are well worth it.

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