If we were lucky as a child, we got to visit a zoo or aquarium. Those experiences could have profound impact that stayed with us through adulthood. Were we enthralled? Were we horrified?
I grew up in the Bronx, NY. I visited the Bronx Zoo many times. I can remember the cages with bars holding back the sad-looking big cats. Since 1993, the Bronx Zoo now goes by the Wildlife Conservation Society with re-focused mandate on conservation and education. When I was a boy, I idolized Jacques Cousteau. Each week on TV I would sit mesmerized and watch Jacques in his wet suit and mask and remember that ‘funny’ accent as he would inevitably say “today, we dive the murky depths”… or something close to that. I was, please pardon the pun, hooked on ocean life. Luckily, being in a major US metropolitan city, we also had not one, but two aquariums. The Central Park Zoo had a small sea lion enclosure and a small penguin enclosure. And, the small Coney Island Aquarium has grown up over the years to now become the The New York Aquarium “Saving Wildlife and Wild Places”. This is a never-ending debate… are zoos / aquariums good or bad?
My personal opinion is that if they truly embrace conservation, preservation and education of the public, they serve an invaluable purpose to give visitors young and old a sense of awe about the creatures and ecosystems on our planet, and what we can do to help in conservation efforts. Now, as an adult, my travels have taken me across the USA and to many countries overseas. I have come up with my three favorite aquariums to date that I feel do the job of conservation, education and advocation quite well.
Jelly Fish, Monterey Bay Aquarium
by Joe Staiano
The Monterey Bay Aquarium, Monterey Bay, CA is massive, with 200 exhibits. Their Ocean Sea Exhibit has a massive 90-foot window! They inspire, they act and they empower young ocean leaders. Their exhibits are just a small part of what they do. Their marine scientists are helping rebuild sea otter populations, transforming fisheries and aquaculture around the world, and working to protect California’s ocean. They work on policy and legislation to address climate change and end plastic pollution. And their Seafood Watch team is shifting the global marketplace to make seafood more sustainable. Their Teacher-and-Youth-Development Programs have reached over 2.5 million children helping these young people find their voices as ocean conservation leaders and ensuring a healthy future for the ocean.
Their Act For The Ocean pages on their website spell out the challenges facing our planet and oceans, what they are doing at the aquarium to help, and most importantly, what actions WE can take to make things better!
My favorite from my visit: The jellyfish. Their movement and rhythm are mesmerizing. They come in all sizes. The Lion’s Mane Jelly has tentacles that extend 100 feet! Learn more about Jellys here.
“The sea, once it casts its spell, holds one in its net of wonder forever.”
Heading straight north from Monetrey, you’ll hit the US/Canada border. Now, keep going… more… more… There, you’ve reached Alaska. And, if you are in Seward, you are visiting the Alaska SeaLife Center. The SeaLife Center is the only facility in Alaska that combines a public aquarium with marine research, education, and marine mammal rescue and rehabilitation.
You can see Steller Sea Lions, playful puffins, sea urchins, and even a Smooth Lumpsucker, if you’re into that. My big highlight was their Puffin Encounter. For an additional $90 charge, 4 persons at a time spend 60 minutes and get to go behind the scenes, meet the researchers, learn about puffins and their behavior, and then, participants are allowed into the aviary exhibit itself to hand feed the puffins.
Puffin Encounter, Alaska SeaLife Center
by Joe Staiano
My final entry for best aquariums in the world is the Lisbon Oceanarium in Portugal.
With all the amazing sites of Portugal, this was just going to be a pitstop while in Lisbon. Well, that pitstop turned into a 5 hour day, and I loved every second of it!. Little did I know that the Oceanario de Lisboa is the most popular cultural attraction in all of Portugal. The Oceanarium’s largest exhibit is massive and holds 5 million liters of seawater. They are committed to educational programs that teach young and old about the oceans and marine species. They draw people’s attention to current environmental issues. And, they promote ocean sustainability, by supporting scientific research and marine biodiversity conservation projects. When I visited, I was lucky to see a temporary exhibition, “Forests Underwater by Takashi Amano” which featured tropical forests inside a magnificent aquarium. Not present when I was there is their newest exhibit: One, The Ocean As You Never Felt It. My favorite was seeing the massive Ocean Sun Fish, or Mola Mola. This beauty is the heaviest bone fish.. weighing in at 2,200 pounds!
So, what are your thoughts about zoos and aquariums? Do you have a favorite? Please share with us. Thank you.
Due to COVID-19, all 2020 tours were cancelled. We remain hopeful for a return to responsible adventure travel in 2021. Until then…