Baltimore’s Inner Harbor hums with a vibrant energy – musicians strumming songs, office workers enjoying their lunches, tourists snapping photos of the ships in the harbor.
But the star of the show, every time I visit, is the glass-encased building in the center of it all – the National Aquarium. From the moment I walk through the doors, I’m always immediately transported to a different world, one bursting with aquatic wonders.
This summer, I took my son and his cousins to the aquarium for their first visit – and we soon returned for a second trip, because the first time was even more fun than I’d expected.
Both times, the Baltimore heat instantly became a distant memory as soon as we walked through the doors. Our eyes were all drawn to the cool waterfall cascading from several floors up. Fish swam in a pool at eye level, and the boys reached out to trace the pale bodies slipping in and out of view.
In fact, it may be called the National Aquarium, but the Baltimore landmark is chock full of Maryland connections. First of all, there’s the aquarium’s location. Perched on the edge of the harbor, it boasts some of the best views of the Chesapeake Bay in Baltimore; a walkway between the aquarium’s two buildings hovers over the waves, an attraction all on its own. The Bay right outside the windows reminds us that these wild wonders are not confined to a museum; they exist in nature, right outside, surrounding us even when seemingly forgotten. But the Chesapeake Bay also has a strong presence in the aquarium’s displays – from an exhibit focused on Maryland’s water habitats to an interactive Living Seashore exhibit.
“Whoa! Jellyfish!” my nephew yelled, dashing to the low-lying tank to plunge his fingers into the water. But for once, we didn’t have to run after him and pull his hands back out. At the Living Seashore exhibit, he was doing exactly what he was supposed to be doing – getting up close and personal with marine life.
In another touch-pool, sleek gray stingrays and dappled-gold skates shimmied beneath tiny, eager hands. The Living Seashore exhibit doesn't focus specifically on the Chesapeake Bay, but it’s still fascinating for locals to learn more about the creatures along the beach and in the water.
My other nephew was fascinated by Maryland: Mountains to the Sea. The exhibit, divided into four sections, shows the water cycle in action – from an Allegheny stream to a tidal marsh, along a coastal beach and out to the continental shelf.
My nephew paused at the beach exhibit and pointed out hiding places for snakes and crabs in the sand and beach grass. He was fascinated by all the life he’d never before seen teeming on and under the shore.
We were all amazed at the exotic-looking creatures that live so close to us – from the diamondback terrapin, one of my very favorites, to the truly eye-catching oyster toadfish.
Exhibits like these pull Maryland’s hidden ecosystems and creatures closer to us.
But the aquarium does more than reconnect us to the water around us. It also helps conserve important habitats in the Chesapeake Bay.
The National Aquarium is actually a conservation nonprofit focused on protecting the Chesapeake watershed and restoring natural areas that in turn protect and clean our water. The organization cleans up and revitalizes tidal wetlands through habitat restoration projects.
“Beyond the diverse habitats it provides for wildlife in the area, the Chesapeake Bay serves another critical purpose: It’s the foundation of our local economy,” the website points out. “It’s home to two of the five major shipping ports in the North Atlantic and supplies us with the seafood and recreational activities that fuel our local businesses. Imagine a summer on the Chesapeake with no swimming, fishing or boating! In order to continue reaping the benefits of the Bay, we need to take responsibility for its conservation.” It’s a message that reverberates throughout the aquarium.
Maybe, I began to wonder, I’ve been thinking of the aquarium wrong all this time. It’s not a different world full of wonder. It’s the same world as the one we live in, but it has been designed to show how water courses through everything like the blood in our veins – how the water falling in a rainforest is connected to the water that flows from the tap; how a waterfall in Australia can be so similar to the ones we visit at Great Falls.
The wonders have been there all along, just waiting to be explored.
Now for some practical advice. During peak times, like the summer and weekends, book your tickets in advance to skip the box-office line and head straight to the fun. If you're planning to buy anything in the gift shop, bring your own bag or be prepared to pay a few bucks on their upcycled totes – the only bags they offer to customers.
Strollers are prohibited in the aquarium, so be sure to plan accordingly. If you do bring them they can be checked on the main floor. We brought baby carriers and wraps for the younger kids, and made sure we paced ourselves with the older boys – sitting to rest whenever we could, and planning a mix of active walking and more stationary events like the dolphin training sessions.