Nestled among the upscale restaurants and luxury hotels of downtown Boston, not too far from the quaint, roughneck charm of Little Italy and right next to the ground traversed by Boston’s tourists and business elite lies the New England Aquarium. The aquarium’s modern, angular architecture stands out among its neighbors on the Boston Harbor and belies its interior’s eerie serenity.
The smell hits first. It’s surprising that most aquariums don’t have the same fish market odor–then again, one wouldn’t expect it to be coming from penguins. The first sight that greets visitors to the aquarium is a neon-colored swimming pool with a few large rocks thrown in, covered with many tiny penguins.
“It’s weird how penguins are birds, but then underwater they turn into fish,” says one confused bystander.
The aquarium’s first floor is dedicated to an open-air exhibit of more than 80 penguins of three different breeds: African penguins, southern rockhopper penguins, and the aptly named little blue penguins. Visitors eagerly watch them gobble up small fish from the trainers, waddle around, and generally look adorable. Their habitat is the base of a huge warehouse-structure that is the aquarium building.
A three-story ramp spirals around the aptly named Giant Ocean Tank, the aquarium’s centerpiece and main beneficiary of the $17.3 million spent in renovations over the last several months. According to the aquarium’s website, the tank is 40 feet wide, 26 feet deep, and holds 200,000 gallons of water, 2,000 animals, and 3,000 sculpted coral elements. In this makeshift Caribbean habitat, green sea turtles swim with blacknose sharks, eels, barracudas, and every size and color of fish you can think of. Parents idly toy with touch screens displaying information about each species while their children search for the sea turtles and marvel at their classroom pets multiplied in size by 50.
“How did it get so big, Daddy?” asks one little girl.
“I don’t know. He must eat a lot of lettuce.”
Along the ramp’s walls and on the opposite side of the Giant Ocean Tank are windows into smaller tanks, displaying different habitats from around the world. Some of these are striking, while some are disappointingly mundane. The Gulf of Maine tank appears more like a restaurant menu to those from the northeast, and the salt marsh tank features more roots than fish. However, the sheer size and prehistoric ugliness of the giant octopus is not an image easily shed, and the eel tank that measures the animal’s electricity to tell when it’s hunting or at rest is a neat science experiment.
The aquarium’s bottom floor is perhaps the most unnerving. In a spacious carpeted room that looks like a wealthy person’s gutted basement are tanks of various jellyfish species. In dark, undersized tanks illuminated by a single light, they float by like extraterrestrial beings–and they might as well be. Jellyfish are boneless, brainless, and heartless, and as the aquarium fact sheets take care to point out, are likely to increase in numbers as the climate keeps changing. These creatures are the most oddly entrancing in the aquarium.
“This is way too creepy,” says one visitor. “I should tweet this.”
An oft-overlooked aspect of the aquarium is the aforementioned “hands-on programs.” How hands-on could an aquarium get? The Trust Family Foundation Shark and Ray Touch Tank features a shallow tank filled with diminutive cownose rays, Atlantic rays, and epaulette sharks. Visitors, mostly small children, line the tank’s edge and dip their hands into the water as the creatures swim by. An aquarium employee’s gentle scolding of overeager children falls on deaf ears.
“It feels like wet suede,” says a man who appears much too old to be at the touch tank. “Do you think they tell people that this is how Steve Irwin died?”
The aquarium’s open-air top floor is home to two families of harbor seals. For as cuddly as they look, the sounds and smells emanating from the seals are anything but charming. The seals swim in a pool that looks like it could be built in someone’s backyard. Next to them is a ballroom area and a view overlooking the Boston harbor, all of which combine to make the seals seem like the loud, wealthy tenants of a Boston high-rise.
While traversing the various floors and exhibits, it’s striking how inherently odd the practice of wandering through a massive dark room with scores of other people crowding around fish tanks really is. There’s a basic fascination in watching these forms of life so different from ourselves go about their own lives, yet all of a sudden an hour passes and so far there’s just been a whole lot of swimming. The true focus and benefit of going to the aquarium is the opportunity to learn a textbook’s worth of information about marine biology, thanks to the facts, timelines, and interactive activities that accompany each exhibit. Sadly, the few minutes or so that visitors spend at each tank usually doesn’t include reading this information.
With this education comes a message of conservation. The aquarium’s mission statement is “to protect the blue planet through hands-on programs, live animal and interactive exhibits, public lectures and forums, and research and conservation projects.” The hope is that by learning about and appreciating these animals, guests will be more inclined to help protect or at least become aware of the challenges marine species face. In the aquarium’s 2012 annual report, 20 percent of the aquarium’s $41.3 million operating revenue went toward scientific studies, research programs, education, and habitat protection. It also participates in studies and experiments in conservation around the world.
When the New England Aquarium is viewed as a means for education and research instead of simply an exhibition of creatures with fins, it takes on an added layer of significance. More than just weekend distraction for families, it’s a vehicle for learning more about the world and teaching those findings to future generations. Let’s hope they aren’t too distracted by all the pretty fish.