Family

Best US Aquariums by Region

Filed Under: Aquarium, Family, United States

Wild waters are full of mysterious creatures, from small and dangerous peacock mantis shrimp -- its claw can clamp down on your finger with the force of a .22 caliber bullet -- to massive whale sharks, the largest fish in the world. You can get up close and personal with these marine animals and others at these top aquariums across the US. Read on for our favorite aquariums across the country. 

East Coast 

 National Aquarium
National Aquarium
The National Aquarium splits its collection of 16,500 marine animals between Baltimore and Washington, DC. If you only have time to check out one location, join the 1.5 million visitors headed to Maryland where 115,000 square feet of exhibit space takes you to waters near and far: Designed like a river gorge, the Australia: Wild Extremes experience showcases down under land and sea creatures such as the nonvenomous black-headed python and the freshwater mouth almighty fish. You can also meet the state’s backyard animals -- American bullfrogs and blue crabs -- at the Maryland: Mountains to the Sea exhibit. 

Plan your trip before Labor Day to pay a visit to Mighty Mike, a 14-foot, 800-pound alligator at Adventure Aquarium in Camden, NJ. Visitors should also walk through the shark tunnel -- the aquarium has the only great hammerhead sharks in the U.S. -- and sign up for a hands-on experience with stingrays. 

West Coast 

Monterey Bay Aquarium
Monterey Bay Aquarium/Randy Wilder
The nonprofit Monterey Bay Aquarium, located in Monterey, CA, is not only home to peacock mantis shrimp (its mighty claw has been known to break tank walls) and large mysterious mola mola -- also known as ocean sunfish, they grow to 2,200 pounds -- it’s also one of the world’s leading ocean conservation organizations. The Sea Otter Research and Conservation program (SORAC), for example, works to rehabilitate and breed the Pacific Coast native, whose population dropped to about 50 in 1911 (today, there are approximately 2,800). Learn more at the aquarium’s Sea Otter Exhibit, always a favorite among visitors. 

Located in Long Beach, CA, the Aquarium of the Pacific has more than 11,000 marine creatures, representing 500 species, including threatened animals such as the sand tiger shark, the giant sea bass and the olive ridley sea turtle. While the Shark Lagoon and year-old June Keyes Penguin Habitat are some of the most popular exhibits, don’t miss smaller galleries where lesser-known ocean inhabitants -- flamboyant cuttlefish, for example, which continuously change color -- thrive. 

Midwest 

Shedd Aquarium
Shedd Aquarium/Brenna Hernandez
Close to 2.17 million people visited Shedd Aquarium, housed in a 1930 Beaux-Arts building outside of Chicago, in 2012, many of which stopped by Granddad’s tank: The Australian lungfish is the oldest living fish in any aquarium in the world. Sea otters, dolphins and beluga whales also vie for your attention, but don’t miss the At Home on the Great Lakes exhibit. The new show hones in on this diverse North American ecosystem, which not only supports 36 million people but also 3,500 plant and animal species -- 200 of which are globally rare. 

Get over your fear of sharks at the Newport Aquarium, located outside of Cincinnati, housing 57 of the (often misunderstood) marine predators. Here, visitors walk through an acrylic tube were 6 shark types, some up to 10 feet in length, swim around you. Take it to the next level at Shark Central, where you can touch more than a dozen of these fierce fish in a 5,000-gallon tank. 

South 

Georgia Aquarium
Georgia Aquarium
You might associate the world’s great coral reefs with regions like Australia and Central America, but the Florida Aquarium in Tampa models its popular coral gallery after Dry Tortuga formations off the Florida Keys. There are over 2,000 reef residents in this 500,000-gallon tank, including many species that are native to the Sunshine State. The institution also helps propagate reefs throughout the region, along with other efforts such as rescuing sea turtles, river otters and manatees. 

The Georgia Aquarium (georgiaaquarium.org) in Atlanta is the only center outside of Asia with whale sharks; the globe’s largest fish are housed in a 6.3 million-gallon tank (along with 9-foot manta rays), the biggest aquatic exhibit in the world. You can also see American albino alligators as well as the institution’s latest addition, Australian pig-nosed turtles, in the River Scout gallery. 

Southwest 

Dallas World Aquarium
oddharmonic, flickr
You’ll see more than ocean dwellers at the Dallas World Aquarium. Since opening in 1992, the Texas center has expanded to include the Orinoco-Secrets of the River, a rainforest experience, as well as the Mundo Maya exhibit, which focuses on plants and animals that were historically important to ancient Mayan culture. This includes the world’s largest collection of toucans, cotingas and manakins, all brightly colored tropical birds. 




Alaska and Hawaii 

Waikiki Aquarium
randychiu, flickr
The Waikiki Aquarium on Honolulu distinguishes itself by hosting a number of species that are distinctive to -- you guessed it -- the Hawaiian island chain. This includes the Hawaiian monk seal, one of the world’s most endangered species (there are only 1,100 of the 400-plus-pound mammals left) as well as a number of reefs (the aquarium has the oldest living collection of corals in the US). Don’t miss the tank with the peppermint angelfish, a French Polynesian native that’s currently on loan from the Smithsonian and valued at more than $30,000. 

The decade-old Alaska Sealife Center dedicates itself to the research, rehabilitation and education of native Alaska marine species. Unlike a typical aquarium, guests buy tickets to shadow researchers working with area harbor seals, for example, or to tour the center’s aviary with a bird keeper. Alaska Sealife’s rehabilitation department also nurses stranded or injured animals -- spectacled eider birds and sea otters, among others -- and releases them, when possible, back into the wild cold waters.

About the Author

Stirling Kelso is a freelance writer and currently contributes to The New York Times, Travel + Leisure, Southern Living and Food & Wine, among other publications. Kelso has also appeared on a number of television outlets including CNN, Fox, TBS, WNBC, WCBS, LX New York and New York 1. When she's not living out of her little red carryon, she calls Austin, TX, home.

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