Best U.S. Aquariums by Region
Wild waters are full of mysterious creatures, from the small and dangerous peacock mantis shrimp — whose 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 the top aquariums across the U.S. Here are our favorites, separated by region.
The National Aquarium in Baltimore attracts 1.5 million visitors every year with its nearly 20,000 animals and 115,000 square feet of exhibit space that 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.
At the Adventure Aquarium in Camden, N.J., visitors have to walk through the shark tunnel — the only place to see great hammerhead sharks on display in the U.S. They can get even closer by signing up for the swim-with-sharks program. For those wanting a less daunting hands-on experience, the aquarium also offers encounters with penguins and sea turtles.
The nonprofit Monterey Bay Aquarium in Monterey, California, is not only home to peacock mantis shrimp (whose 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, for example, works to rehabilitate and breed the animals, which are native to the Pacific Coast and whose population dropped to about 50 in 1911. Today, there are nearly 3,000. Learn more at the aquarium’s sea otter exhibit, always a favorite among visitors.
Located in Long Beach, California, 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 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.
As many as 2 million people visit Shedd Aquarium, which is housed in a 1930 Beaux Arts building in Chicago, every year. Many of them were sure to stop by the tank housing Granddad, an Australian lungfish that's the oldest living fish in any aquarium in the world. Sea otters, dolphins and beluga whales also vie for your attention.
Get over your fear of sharks at the Newport Aquarium, located just outside of Cincinnati in Newport, Kentucky. It houses more than 50 of the often-misunderstood marine predators. Visitors can walk through an acrylic tube where six 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.
You might associate the world’s great coral reefs with regions such as Australia and Central America, but the Florida Aquarium in Tampa models its popular coral gallery after the Dry Tortugas formations off the Florida Keys. There are more than 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 supporting other efforts, such as rescuing sea turtles, river otters and manatees.
The Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta is the only center outside 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 and Australian pig-nosed turtles in the River Scout gallery.
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 exhibit, a rain-forest experience, as well as the Mundo Maya exhibit, which focuses on plants and animals that were historically important to ancient Mayan culture. The latter includes the world’s largest collection of toucans, cotingas and manakins, all brightly colored tropical birds.
Alaska and Hawaii
The Waikiki Aquarium in Honolulu distinguishes itself by hosting a number of species that are distinctive to — you guessed it — the Hawaiian island chain. These include 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 U.S).
The Alaska SeaLife Center, which opened in 1998, dedicates itself to the research, rehabilitation and education of native Alaskan marine species. Unlike at 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 birdkeeper. The center'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.
MORE: Visit the Aquarium of the Pacific With Bert Kreischer