The Best Aquariums in the US

Jul 26, 2019

If you’ve ever left an aquarium feeling like you’ve just had a massage or epic Headspace session, you’re not imagining things—or at least not entirely: A team of British researchers recently discovered that the sight of fish swimming in a large tank can  lower your heart rate and blood pressure—and boost your happiness. And the more biodiversity on display, the more dramatic those effects. So the fact that most aquariums have been strengthening their conservation efforts works out pretty nicely for not just the fish, but for the blissed-out humans, too. Where to go for your next moment of zen? Consider these eight greats.

The Florida Aquarium in Tampa

If just being in an aquarium comes with wellness benefits, imagine what happens when you practice onsite yoga. Better yet, find out in person during Flow with the Fishes at the Florida Aquarium on Aug. 25, when yogis of all experience levels will cycle through a series of poses—rest assured, boat pose is in there—against a living coral reef backdrop. As for the reef's residents, the aquarium didn’t have to look far to find them: After Alaska, Florida has the most shoreline of any U.S. state, and the rich local marine life is a focal point of this institution, from the sea turtles and bonnet head sharks you'll snorkel with during a Heart of the Sea Swim (a kaleidoscopic new habitat in a 100,000-gallon tank) to the pythons and gators you'll wander by on the Wetlands Trail (mercifully, there are no mosquitoes). Tampa's is also one of the few aquariums with its own cruise operation: Twice daily, weather permitting, there's a Wild Dolphin Cruise through Tampa Bay, where you can observe all kinds of dolphin behavior from a respectful distance.


The Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta

555,000 square feet. 10 million gallons of water. 700 species of aquatic wildlife. The stats may be dizzying, but they start to give you an idea of the nation’s largest aquarium—home, fittingly, to the world’s largest fish: whale sharks. Four, to be exact, and they’re the aquarium’s marquee draw, together with a supporting cast of 60,000 or so other creatures that inhabit the Ocean Voyager’s 6.3 million gallons (give or take). Though just peering in is amazing, especially from the underwater tunnel, diving in is even better—so if you’re feeling bold, book a swimming or diving session. If you’re feeling less bold, stick to the offerings that require neither a wet suit nor breathing apparatus—that is, the vast majority of what you'll do in the aquarium. There’s still so much to see, in fact, that you’ll want a Skip the Line pass. And if you still haven’t gotten your fill by day's end, check the calendar of available Sleep Under the Sea dates, and sack out in front of the whale sharks (or the dolphins, or any of a number of other habitats). Just don’t be surprised to find yourself counting, say, goliath grouper in place of sheep.


The Monterey Bay Aquarium in Monterey

There are excellent contenders up and down the California coast, but this one, two hours south of San Francisco, strikes a perfect balance between immersive education and raw thrill. Plus, the setting—right on the docks of Cannery Row in the heart of John Steinbeck country—adds a historic vibe you don't often get from, say, otter-feeding attractions. (Speaking of, we should note that endangered southern sea otters are the aquarium's superstars, and the beneficiaries of some of its leading conservation efforts). Then again, many would argue that the real star of the aquarium is the resident kelp forest: a three-story tank, where rockfish, octopus and leopard sharks paint a psychedelic portrait of color and movement. Watch them go nuts at feeding time—or do nothing in particular for hours. Either option's amazing. Then there's the jellyfish gallery, teeming with ethereal, neon-colored creatures that flash like moonbeams through the cobalt water. And don't leave without snapping a selfie at everyone's favorite backdrop: the Wave Crash tunnel, where 600 gallons' worth of simulated surf churns every thirty seconds. Of course, if you're a Big Little Lies fan, your photo ops will be a bit different: We highly recommend the entire circuit for anyone who's been suffering withdrawal since the season's Jul. 21 finale.


Newport Aquarium in Newport, KY

While there are countless Newports, most of them by the ocean, the one that this aquarium calls home sits at the confluence of the Ohio and Licking Rivers in Kentucky, just over the border from Cincinnati—not necessarily the first place you’d go looking for crocodiles from four continents, a pair of rare albino alligators and a rogues’ gallery of fearsome fish. But the place is swimming with ‘em. In fact, there are 12 species of sharks alone, as you’ll find at Surrounded By Sharks, a frankly astonishing underwater tunnel where the likes of Blacktip Reef Sharks, a Zebra Shark and a trio of rare shark rays—hybrid animals with disturbingly human eyes—cruise inches above your head. If you’re feeling brave, walk the first-of-its-kind in North America rope bridge across the open-air Shark Tank Overlook. And no matter how hungry those 300 or so beasts beneath you look, we hope we don’t have to remind you: Please don’t feed the animals.


The Shedd Aquarium in Chicago

Aquariums aren’t just about the world’s oceans. The Great Lakes area is home to 3,500 or so species of plants and animals—the most remarkable of which star at the Shedd, aptly, on the shores of Lake Michigan. But first let’s talk about the building. Architecture buffs will go crazy for this 1927 Beaux-Arts beauty, whose centerpiece—a dome with a 4,500 square-foot skylight—is topped by Neptune’s trident. Then there are the exhibits: 1,500 species of animals, 32,000 creatures in all, with thousands upon thousands of fish, turtles and birds. If there’s one local creature you can’t miss, it’s the prehistoric Lake Sturgeon of At Home on the Great Lakes, where you can actually touch a dinosaur-era holdover (insert your own Catskills joke here). But the Great Lakes are but one of 77 marine habitats you’ll find in the Shedd’s signature Waters of the World exhibit, where you should also keep an eye out for giant Pacific octopus, mountain horned dragons Cross River puffer and violet-line piranhas, among others.


Oregon Coast Aquarium in Newport, OR

You didn’t think we were going to get through an entire aquarium story without at least one more Newport, did you?  This one—on the shores of Oregon’s Yaquina Bay—harbors another special spot. Not blow-you-away-with-zillion-gallon tanks special, but warm, welcoming and truly of (and for) the dramatic coast it calls home. Want to get involved locally in preservation? This is the get-your-hands sandy kind of place you’re looking for (the website even lists beach clean-up dates). Hundreds of birds, mammals, plants and amphibians from Pacific coastal waters, estuaries and shores make up the majority of the fourteen permanent exhibitions here. But what really makes this spot worth a detour is the Passages of the Deep exhibit, a wild tunnel walk that takes you from the canyons of the Oxford Reef into progressively deeper waters until you reach the vast, shark-filled Open Sea. (Diehards, take note: You can actually sleep in the tunnels as long as you're at least six years old.) And if you'd rather meet those 10-foot Broadnose Sevengill sharks mask-to-face, you can dive this section of the aquarium—though in this case you've got to be at least 10, and have proof of Open Water certification.


The Mystic Aquarium in Mystic, CT

This aquarium, also an oceanographic institute, packs literal tons into its relatively intimate setting. The 2,000- to 3,000-pound stars of the place are the bright white and ridiculously adorable beluga whales—and lucky for them, this is the largest facility in the US for their care. You can even touch their soft foreheads, which are called, incredibly, melons. Another crowd pleaser? The 30-something residents of the Penguin Encounter, where you can go nose-to-beak with these total hams of the animal kingdom. In fact, you can eat, drink and be merry with them at a series of special events: Check out upcoming Pizza with Penguins nights, for example. (Of course, this being Mystic, you're contractually obliged to eat pizza while you're in town.)


The New England Aquarium in Boston

For five decades, the New England Aquarium has stood on the edge of Boston Harbor. Like Faneuil Hall and the Old North Church, the Blue Planet—as the aquarium calls itself—is a local institution. As the waterfront has changed over the years, the aquarium has adapted to be on the front lines in the battles for ocean conservation and sustainable fishing practices. There’s even a lobster hatchery. But as prominently as the North Atlantic and its residents feature here, you'll also find guest stars from all over the world (see: the lemon yellow Longnose butterfly fish, orangespine unicornfish and tomato clownfish of the deeply calming new Indo-Pacific Coral Reef exhibit). And then there’s Myrtle, a green sea turtle estimated to be 95 years old and a Boston celebrity right up there with Matt Damon. Ingeniously, the aquarium has partnered with a whale watch operator on naturalist-guided trips to the Stellwagen Bank Marine Sanctuary, where you have a good chance of spotting humpbacks, finbacks, minkes, pilot whales and right whales. Be sure to book between now and mid-November, or, well...you'll miss the boat (at least until next March, when the 2020 season begins). 

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