To The Aquariums of the World – I Am Done With You

Georgia Aquarium

I love animals and wildlife experiences are amongst my most favorite whenever I travel. Of course I always make sure that the experiences are done in as a sustainable way as possible and more than anything else that the animals aren’t hurt. Besides zoos, another wildlife related activity I’ve been known to engage in is to visit aquariums whenever I travel. I still have great memories of visiting the National Aquarium in Baltimore as a young child and marveling at the giant tanks and the rainforest recreated on an entire floor of the massive institution. But the more I visit these sights, the more I realize how similar they all are to each other. No, not just similar, but almost the same.

 Georgia Aquarium

The Largest, Bestest in the Whole Entire World!

It seems like every aquarium I’ve ever been to has had some superlative attached to it. The largest tank, the biggest building, the most impressive squid – you name it, they all seem to feel the need to impress with size. You don’t see this in the zoo world; the National Zoo doesn’t advertise by saying it has the world’s largest camel enclosure. (It doesn’t, I made that up)  I don’t understand why size has to play into it at all actually. If an aquarium is well curated with interesting exhibits, I don’t care how big it is. In fact, the larger it is the greater the risk of them screwing something up.

 Georgia Aquarium

Every aquarium is exactly the same

Yes, that’s right, every aquarium is the same; each and every one features the same general displays. There’s the ‘indigenous’ section where local fish and small mammals are displayed in a sometimes awkward but usually boring fashion. The Georgia swamp exhibit at the Georgia Aquarium was just painful. So while yes, this section changes by the location, its very presence is entirely predictable and you know what, it’s usually not all that interesting.

Then there’s the cute animal section, usually populated by manatees, dugongs, dolphins, river otters or the like. This is when the kids and those with fancy cameras get all excited, even though it in no way differs from any other aquarium in the world. There’s also usually a freaky or scary fish section with piranha, things that light up and a few poisonous things, preferably dart frogs.

To shock and amaze, every aquarium also has one of those water tunnels, under which not really surprised visitors pass in order to see the underbellies of rays or sharks.

 Georgia Aquarium

Horrible shows

I realize I’m not the demographic towards which these are geared, but they’re there so I’m going to talk about them. When is the last time you went to an aquarium show without someone under the age of ten? Try it and let me know how long you last; I bet it won’t be long. First, there are some ethical concerns about putting on entertainment shows using hyper intelligent dolphins or snappy looking seals, enough of a concern that I refuse to participate. Even if the institution can prove the animals are fine, unless you are the aforementioned toddler you only need to see one in your life. Just make sure to take a lot of photos so that you’ll remember it and you’ll be fine.

 Stroller parking lot at Georgia Aquarium

Children

And that brings me to the last point. Children, in a far greater ratio than zoos or other similar experiences, heavily populate aquariums. That’s fine, but I think that’s also why I won’t be visiting any more aquariums. I just don’t think I’m their demographic any more. I think that for children the idea of seeing animals, any animal, in action isn’t only a great learning opportunity; it’s a lot of fun for them. They haven’t been jaded by visiting far too many of these watery wonderlands and instead will hold that day in their memories for the rest of their lives, just like I have.

And maybe that’s the real issue here, maybe in reality aquariums really are for kids, for families. Maybe that’s why I’ve grown apart from them, even though I still love exploring new (reputable) zoos. Yes, I do think every aquarium is pretty much the same. They all have a couple of small, unique exhibits that separate them from others around the world, but even those don’t matter. Do you think kids care who has the largest tank or the most impressive whale sharks? Naw, they don’t care. The parents don’t’ care. Most visitors don’t care. Other scientists care though and I’m sure it’s a nice fundraising tool, but in the real world of deciding whether or not to visit an aquarium, such thoughts don’t enter into the equation.

Georgia Aquarium

What does enter the mind of prospective patrons is what the experience will do for them and their families. You SHOULD visit an aquarium if you’ve never been to one before. You SHOULD visit an aquarium if you have kids. But, if you’re like me simply looking for new and fun animal experiences, then this is an entirely avoidable stop on your travel itinerary.

So aquariums, while I do love you (I really do) you and I are done, and I think I’m ok with that.

What do you think about aquariums? Do you visit them when you travel?

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By: Matt Long

Matt has a true passion for travel. As someone who has a bad case of the travel bug, Matt travels the world in order to share tips on where to go, what to see and how to experience the best the world has to offer. Also follow Matt on Twitter, Facebook and

24 Responses

  1. Becky

    I, too, used to love aquariums. I still like them – if I can time my visit right. Weekdays, usually first thing in the morning or late afternoon, tend to be best though a tip I’ve learned is to call the aquarium and ask if they are hosting any school field trips that day! When the kids are out of the equation (and you skip the cheesy shows), watching the animals is a really relaxing way to spend part of a day.

    Reply
    • Matt Long

      Good point on the timing. Although the visit that prompted this post happened around noon on a Wednesday a couple of months ago. I thought I’d be safe! LOL

      Reply
  2. John

    You are absolutely spot on about the shows. I walked out of the Georgia Aquarium’s dolphin show. It was just terrible – bad songs, bad acting, and a forced plot line that felt ridiculous. I would have much preferred just looking at the dolphins.

    Reply
    • Matt Long

      That’s the one I had in mind when I wrote this. Dreadful.

      Reply
  3. Emily in Chile

    Have you been to the Monterey Bay Aquarium? I ask because while it is full of kids/families, it’s otherwise very conservation focused (no shows) and has an overall local focus rather than just the one exhibit. And no tunnel! I love it and go every time I’m home – I actually have a post coming in the next few days on my last trip.

    Reply
    • Matt Long

      No I haven’t and yes, I have heard that it’s amazing. I’d hate to break my new rule though… 🙂

      Reply
    • Our Wanders

      We haven’t been to many big aquariums neither as kids nor as adults, but one that we visited like a year ago is the Monterey Bay Aquarium and we loved it so much! For us aquarium means something like Monterey Bay Aquarium and that is an amazing memory. Also, we just enjoy seeing wildlife, that’s that, maybe we are forever kids. 🙂

      Reply
  4. Michaela

    I love zoos and aquariums and try to visit them in each country that I visit. I find wildlife fascinating, no matter how repetitive. Those cute animal faces just draw me in!

    Oh, and kids don’t bother me as much as huge, double decker/double wide strollers. LOL!

    Reply
  5. Alouise

    I’ve actually only ever visited two aquariums in my entire life, the one in Vancouver BC, and the one in Seattle Washington. I don’t get to go coastal cities all the time, so I probably will visit another aquarium, although it probably won’t be on my top to-do list. Not sure if it counts but I’ve seen the sea lion show (and the dolphin show when they had them) several times with my friends at West Edmonton Mall.

    Reply
  6. Annette | Bucket List Journey

    I just went to the Seattle Aquarium and the only thing that fascinated me was being able to pet the starfish and touch the sea urchins. I do agree with Emily, the Monterey Bay Aquarium is awesome!

    Reply
  7. Martin Pietrzak

    Our 4 yr old son loves fish and therefore aquariums of all kinds. He loved the Vancouver, Dubai, Lisbon, Tenerife and even Koh Samui. Our personal favourites are from Vancouver and Tenerife’ Loro Parque. All are quite amazing, except perhaps the rundown and much need of TLC Koh Samui.

    Reply
    • Matt Long

      I think it’s great for kids, incredible learning experience.

      Reply
  8. Lisa

    Like you, I’m not easily impressed but I do love the aquarium at Atlantis because of the manta rays and you can snorkel it just like the one at Georgia Aquarium. I guess if you can get more involved it’s better.

    We don’t do a lot of aquariums with the kids because they find the fish boring and would prefer to see the Lions, Tigers and Elephants at the safari close to our house.

    Reply
  9. Jody

    I used to love aquariums… then I started scuba diving & that shifted my perspective. Seeing the fish in the wild then seeing them in the tank is kind of sad.

    Re: the comment about petting things — the petting exhibits bother me more than the seal shows. At least the trainers (hopefully) handle the animals with care. I’ve seen people squish starfish and sea cucumbers in their hands. I don’t think they even realize they’re handling a living thing. 🙁

    Reply
  10. Katie Hammel

    Another vote for the Monterey Aquarium.

    Having lived in Chicago for several years, I just didn’t think I could get excited about aquariums. The Shedd is good (in the “cute animal” section at least) but once visit was more than enough for me, so when I went to Monterey and everyone raved about the aquarium, I didn’t buy into it. But I went anyways, and I loved it. I could only spend about an hour there, but it was an hour very well spent. Even the “show,” which was really an educational presentation, captured my interest for about 15 minutes. It’s the one aquarium I’d recommend you break your rule to visit.

    Reply
  11. Kiera

    I have a toddler and although she loves going to ANY aquarium, I have to agree with you. It’s just not exciting for us adults anymore. Not much has changed since we were kids! Heck, she gets the same excitement from the fish in tanks at our local grocery store.

    Reply
  12. Noelle

    I agree with you completely. At the aquarium in Monterey CA there were so many kids running wild you couldn’t enjoy the exhibits or in some cases get close enough to see. The aquarium in downtown Houston is really a glorified monument to plastic, especially plastic foliage.

    Reply
  13. Joshua

    I can understand what you mean, although I go to an aquarium because I *can* find it quite relaxing to just watch the fish go by. Provided there aren’t too many kids in my way.

    Reply
  14. Linda

    I know what you mean. Perhaps it’s a sign of age. For years now I’ve refused to go to places which have dolphin (or even worse) orca shows. They are despicable. It’s something I’d decided even before I saw “The Cove” but after that my hatred of them knows no bounds. No-one can persuade me that they are necessary for humans to learn about and appreciate them! I accept that perhaps there are certain aquaria/zoos where such good conservation work + educational work is done that perhaps having some animals in captivity is a necessary evil. I’m mad about manatees, and had I never seen one (in the Living Seas in Epcot) I’d never have been so interested for sure. Still I hate to see dolphins in captivity, and even more so orcas, they can travel up to 100 miles a day in the wild, so it’s very much like prison for them.

    Ref smaller fish I agree that they’re pretty much of a muchness. Yet I love to watch tropical fish, and aquaria rarely supply seating so you can sit peacefully and watch them. People who have them at home always seem to mention how calming it is to do that.

    Reply
  15. Sofie

    First: I absolutely agree that children can be a good reason to stay away from aquariums. Especially schools visiting.

    That said, Boyfriend and I actually really enjoy aquariums. Boyfriend even more than I, but that might be the – indeed – big child in him.
    I actually do think there are differences between aquariums. I don’t often visit aquariums where they have shows with dolphins and other sealife that are the center of the aquarium and where you can then also see ‘some other’ fish.

    I don’t even think I’d be reacting for visiting aquaria if it hadn’t been for the aquarium of San Sebastián. It’s not a terrible big place (two hours and you’re done) and it doesn’t have any animals that would win a size competition. What makes the san Sebastián aquarium special, in my opinion, is that it’s a combination of aquarium and museum.

    Reply
    • Sofie

      I couldn’t go further in my last comment, so as a reply and to elaborate further I’m doing a shameless copy/paste of an article I wrote about my visit to the San Sebastian aquarium:
      •In the first section you’ll find a collection of very detailed model ships, a lot of them replica’s.
      •In the second section you’ll learn about the history of rowing competitions and whale hunting in San Sebastián.
      •After that, you’re taken through a collection of shells and skeletons of different sea animals.
      •The final part is the aquarium itself.

      So the looking at sealife is combine with teh history of vishing and rowing in San Sebastian, which added a lot of value to our visit.

      Reply
  16. Travelwriticus

    I do visit aquariums on my journeys. Btw in my native country Austria there is an interesting one situated inside a former high-rise bunker of Vienna.

    Reply

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