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Monday, February 23, 2015

Zoo Review: Adventure Aquarium

The City of Philadelphia has a lot of amazing attractions, including an excellent zoo.  One thing it does not have is an aquarium (at least not since 1962, when the aquarium in Fairmont Park closed).  For that, you have to go across the river to Camden, New Jersey.  It's here that you will find what used to be the unoriginally-named New Jersey State Aquarium, now rebranded as Adventure Aquarium.

The biggest stars at Adventure - in just about every sense of the word - are the hippos.  Adventure is one of two facilities in the northeast to still exhibit Nile hippos, and the only aquarium to do so.  The hippos can be seen from above or underwater in a twilight gallery (leading to amazing close-up views), an interesting twist because I'd never seen a nocturnal display of these animals.  Hippos in the wild are generally active at night, and I will admit that the hippos here were more active than any I'd seen at any other zoo.  The land portion of the exhibit is shared with African crested porcupines, and when the hippos swim they do so amidst schools of beautiful African cichlids.  It's an awesome exhibit, but the same time, I'm not positive how I feel about such large mammals in an indoor-only exhibit - it would be nice if they had an adjacent outdoor pen.

There are plenty of more traditional aquarium animals at Adventure as well.  In the submarine-like Jules Verne Gallery, visitors travel down an ornate hallway to encounter denizens of the ocean depths, such as giant isopods, Pacific octopus, nautilus, sea dragons, and jellyfish.  Up next is the shark, where a series of interactive exhibits introduce visitors to the ocean's most famed predators.  The highlight here is the tunnel that leads through the tank patrolled by sandbar, sand tiger, and nurse sharks.

More sharks can be seen in the Shipwreck display, which is home to the only great hammerhead shark on display in America, as well as zebra sharks, silky sharks, and bonnetheads. Green and loggerhead sea turtles join several other fish species in this tank as well.  The sharks and turtles can be viewed from several vantage points (which is great, because it's a huge tank and animals are often out of view from one window or another), including an educational theater that faces the largest viewing window.  A very different aquatic predator is found down the hallway, where Orinoco crocodiles are displayed, along with various Caribbean fish.  Nearby, the aquarium's only outdoor exhibit displays a colony of African penguins.  Special kid-themed galleries nearby focus on frogs and turtles.

There is a strong emphasis on interaction at Adventure Aquarium, and guests get many opportunities to meet the residents up close (and not just through glass).  A series of touch tanks allows visitors to handle (under aquarist supervision) stingrays, horseshoe crabs, starfish, and even small sharks.  Special behind-the-scenes encounters are also available, allowing special visitors to swim with sharks, care for penguins, or tour a sea turtle rehabilitation center.  There are also constantly changing exhibits, including those without live animals - at the time of publishing, the new display is "Dinosaurs of the Deep", featuring models of prehistoric marine reptiles (none of which were actually dinosaurs, truth be told).

Like many American aquariums, Adventure is relatively new, opening its doors in 1993.  Unlike many other presitgious aquariums, however, it opened to terrible reviews.  The new aquarium doubled-down and reinvented itself, and the reviews of the newly redone facility have been fantastic.  Unique animals, innovative exhibits, and lots of interaction have made Adventure Aquarium one of the most popular aquariums in the nation.  Hopefully, its fortunes will continue to improve.

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