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Sunday, January 10, 2016

Zoo Review: Shedd Aquarium

Many of the aquariums that I've reviewed so far on the blog have been fairly new ones, most of them opening within the last three decades or so as part of urban renewal projects.  The Adventure Aquarium, the Newport Aquarium, the National Aquarium in Baltimore... all are very nice institutions.  Ironically, however, the public aquarium which has impressed me the most is one of the nation's oldest.

A massive, classical building overlooking Lake Michigan, Chicago's Shedd Aquarium is a magnificent structure, combining charming, early twentieth century architecture with breathtaking, modern animal enclosures.  Nestled amongst the Field Museum of Natural History and the Adler Planetarium in Chicago's Museum Campus, it is the oldest inland aquarium in the United States.  In fact, its existence pre-dates artificial seawater; from its 1930 opening until the dawn of the 1960's, it relied upon a specially-built train carriage, The Nautilus, to provide its exhibits with seawater.

Most of the aquarium's exhibits can be seen in a series of themed hallways that fan out from the central lobby, home of the aquarium's 90,000 gallon Caribbean Reef display.  The newest is Amazon Rising, devoted to the wildlife of the Amazon Basin.  A variety of fish, from freshwater stingrays to massive arapaima, swim through the tanks accompanied by massive turtles, while birds and small monkeys dart above them through the treetops.  Small terrariums spaced around the exhibit hall display small reptiles, amphibians, and a host of giant invertebrates, including tarantulas and giant cockroaches.  From my perspective, the best exhibit was the massive anaconda habitat, easily the biggest such exhibit I've ever seen, provided above and underwater viewing for the world's biggest snake.  The snake was curled up around a log when I saw it, but I can't imagine how cool it would be to see it glide, fully extended, past the underwater viewing windows.

Other themed galleries display animals from the worlds oceans, islands, and freshwater habitats.  Star attractions include giant Pacific octopus, Japanese spider crab (the favorite single animal that I encountered that day, though I think some of my fellow visitors went home with nightmares), Queensland lungfish, and an assortment of sea horses, as well as Rift Valley cichlids and critically endangered Caribbean iguanas.  Given the aquarium's location, it's only right that an entire gallery is devoted to the Great Lakes, where native species are exhibited alongside with the invasive species that threaten them (the sea lamprey exhibit is easily one of the eeriest sights I've seen in an aquarium).  At the center of the hallways is a touch tank for sturgeons where, under the supervision of aquarium staff, visitors can feel the prehistoric fish swim under their hands.  Shedd Aquarium has been very involved in research and conservation of Great Lakes ecosystems, the stories of which are told here in great detail.  Outside, a balcony wraps around the aquarium, offering visitors an incredible view of Lake Michigan's vast expanses, as well as the Chicago skyline.

In 2003, the lower level of the aquarium opened up as Wild Reef, an exploration of coral reefs and the animals that live in them.  Many of the tanks - featuring fish and marine invertebrates - are furnished with live coral.  The star-attractions are the sharks and sawfish, gliding about in a 400,000 gallon tank, seen through 12-foot tall curved windows.  Down the hall, a behind-the-scenes peek is offered into the aquarium's coral propagation lab, where staff study the breeding of these creatures, so essential to ocean life but so threatened in their native seas.

No visit to the Shedd Aquarium would be complete without a stop in the Abbott Oceanarium, home to the facility's marine mammals.  Beluga whales and rarely-exhibited Pacific white-sided dolphins are featured in an educational program that highlights how aquariums utilize training to care for their animals (something which I feel is often misunderstood in the age of Blackfish).  Again utilizing its beautiful surroundings, the aquarium has made the back wall of the Oceanarium a massive window overlooking the lake.  Exhibits for sea otters (after the Exxon Valdez spill, some of the affected sea otters were re-homed here). and California sea lions are also found here, while a basement level offers underwater views of the marine mammals, a children's play area, and a beautiful habitat of Antarctic penguins.

I found the Shedd Aquarium to be a very admirable aquarium.  The collection was incredibly diverse and beautiful displayed.  The commitment to conservation was highlighted in several areas, such as the coral propagation unit, the work with endangered iguanas, and, above all, the Great Lakes initiative.  I'm normally indifferent to marine mammal "shows", but the demonstrations with the belugas and dolphins did a fantastic job of highlighting why training is important for captive animals (for their well-being, physical and mental) and how it is done (with positive reinforcement).  I'm not nearly as well traveled among aquariums as I am zoos, but for now, the Shedd Aquarium has been bumped up to my benchmark of what a great aquarium should look like.

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