The roar of ocean waves crashing on the shore mixes with the crooning of seabirds hovering high overhead as you relax in a beach chair soaking up the sun. It is a relaxing scene, isn’t it? But as author Dave Barry once wrote, “When you finally see what goes on underwater, you realize that you’ve been missing the whole point of the ocean.”
The planet’s oceans are awe-inspiring, a unique world that harbors both beauty and danger — magnificent colorful coral reefs teeming with life, marshes and estuaries, and predators silently lurking beneath the waves.
Lucky for us, there are many spectacular public aquariums across the country that allow us to experience this fascinating watery realm firsthand with some of the best located along the U.S. Gulf Coast from Key West to New Orleans.
Let me introduce you to eight of the best aquariums along the gulf you should make plans to check out.
Key West Aquarium — Key West, Florida
The story of the Key West Aquarium is fascinating in and of itself. Built by the young men of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) during the Great Depression, the aquarium opened its doors in February 1935 only to shut down 6 months later after being destroyed by a devastating hurricane.
After being dismantled by the U.S. government and used as a military training facility during World War II, the land was returned to the public in 1946 and the aquarium was rebuilt bigger and better than before. Today, it is an incredible research facility actively working to preserve the keys’ delicate ecosystem and educate the public about its fragility.
Visitors to the aquarium can view Moray eels, barracuda, and sea cucumbers. The aquarium is the home to four species of endangered sea turtles that cannot be released — the green, loggerhead, hawksbill, and Kemp Ridley.
There is a touch tank that allows visitors to learn about (and touch) marine life found in the keys near inshore waters such as conch, sea stars, giant hermit crabs, and slate pencil sea urchins while the shark exhibit lets you get face to face with sandbar sharks and blacknose sharks.
The most mesmerizing tank is the Jellyfish Exhibit where dozens of the ghostly tentacled creatures float serenely.
The Key West Aquarium is open daily 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., rain or shine but will close if there is a special event booked such as a wedding. Visit its website for updates. It’s recommended that you purchase tickets in advance online.
Florida Keys Aquarium Encounter — Marathon, Florida
Don a wetsuit, slip on the fins, rig the snorkel and have a blast as you hop into the water to explore the mango lagoon at the Florida Keys Aquarium Encounter. The private lagoon is an enclosed bay that helps protect it from the harsh wind conditions of the keys providing an incredible snorkeling experience. All gear is provided for this one-of-a-kind experience.
Besides the snorkeling adventure, the aquarium boasts a tide pool touch tank, a 200,000-gallon saltwater reef tank that mimics the keys’ coastal reef system, predator reef tank that lets you get up close — but not too close — to nurse, blacktip, and bonnethead sharks, and a Feeding Encounter where you can experience feeding the iconic Florida fish — the tarpon.
The aquarium is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Advance tickets can be purchased online. There is a separate fee for the Lagoon Snorkeling Encounter and you must call in advance to reserve a spot.
You’ll work up an appetite visiting the aquarium so grab a bite to eat at the Eagle Ray Café that serves up delicious fish sandwiches, daily lunch specials, and a full line of beer and wine.
Mote Marine Laboratory And Aquarium — Sarasota, Florida
The Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium (MMLA) is on a mission — to help combat climate change, pollution, and overfishing. One of the methods used to reach that goal is to educate the public which is what the aquarium at MMLA does.
MMLA uses informative hands-on exhibits and activities including eco-boat tours and kayak paddles around Sarasota Bay to experience dolphins and manatees while learning about the surrounding waters.
The highlight of the aquarium is Breakfast with the Sharks. Watch and learn as the staff feeds the bonnethead sharks while you dine on a continental breakfast.
Mote is open daily 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. yearly including holidays. Purchase your tickets online or at the aquarium.
Gulfarium Marine Adventure Park — Fort Walton Beach, Florida
Overlooking the Gulf of Mexico is the spectacular Gulfarium Marine Adventure Park, and that it is — an adventure for all ages. You and your family could be a:
Dolphin Star where you get to go “onstage” with handlers to touch and feed dolphins during one of the shows, stand in the shallow water of the dolphin pool to touch, play, and learn in the Dolphin Splash, even snorkel with the stingrays.
Add to the list a meet and greet with reptiles, penguins, and more, plus fun sea lion shows and you’re guaranteed to have an amazing day of fun.
For those with special needs, the Gulfarium has programs designed just for you. The park is open from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Last tickets are sold at the gate at 3:30 p.m. or purchase them online.
Alabama Aquarium at the Dauphin Island Sea Lab — Dauphin Island, Alabama
Located on Alabama’s barrier island, the Dauphin Island Sea Lab (DISL) is an educational facility that researches the effects of climate change, development, and pollution on the gulf and its estuaries with programs from elementary school all the way to graduate level.
Although small in size, the Alabama Aquarium at the Dauphin Island Sea Lab (formerly known as the Estuarium) gives us a fascinating look into the marine life of the four coastal Alabama habitats — the Mobile-Tensaw River Delta (the second such delta in the country), Mobile Bay, the Gulf’s barrier islands, and the Gulf of Mexico — with plenty of hands-on and interactive exhibits.
The Alabama Aquarium has 31 aquariums in all with more than 100 species of marine life, a 7,000-gallon stingray touch pool, educational tours with staff members into a salt marsh, and 2-hour educational trips into the gulf aboard the research vessel Alabama Discovery.
Make plans to visit the Sea Lab on the first Saturday in April when it holds Discovery Day, a full day of education with tours led by staff and interns as well as guided kayaking around the island and its marshes.
The Alabama Aquarium is open Monday through Sunday 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Tickets can be purchased online.
Mississippi Aquarium — Gulfport, Mississippi
The Mississippi Aquarium has one of the most incredible experiences you can have without going out scuba diving. It’s called SeaTrek and you can literally swim with the fishes (in a good way.)
Participants don a wetsuit, put on a helmet, and dive underwater to explore the tank with the fish swimming around you. You can actually hear the guides in the helmet describing what you see as you walk along the bottom of the tank. And you don’t need to know how to swim to take part.
Another highlight is the aquarium’s Explore the Aquarium tour, a 30-minute behind-the-scenes tour of how the museum works.
The aquarium also has a full day of exhibits to explore with otters, sea turtles, parrots, penguins, and everything in between.
Visit the aquarium’s website to view details about its daily programs that introduce you to the animals and fish at the aquarium.
Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tickets can be purchased online.
While Gulfport has a slew of great dining options, the aquarium’s Pelican Pointe Café is worth checking out for mouthwatering burgers, nachos, hot dogs, and more plus a long menu of domestic and local craft beer and wine.
Audubon Aquarium Of The Americas — New Orleans, LA
Rounding out the list is one of the country’s great aquariums. In fact, it has been rated as one of the 10 best aquariums in the country by Travel and Leisure magazine — the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas.
Located near the French Quarter on the Mississippi River, the Aquarium of the Americas takes visitors on a journey to the Caribbean, the Amazon rainforest, the Mississippi River, and the Gulf of Mexico, introducing guests to over 3,600 animals including over 250 species, many of which are rare and endangered like the beautiful white alligator and the African penguin.
The incredible 13,000-gallon shark tank features one of the largest collections of sharks such as the white spotted bamboo shark, coral catshark, and more.
The most popular attraction is Penguin Experience. You could spend hours just watching these rare and fun-loving African penguins slide, play, and frolic in their enclosure. Most of them have been born at the aquarium. Penguin feedings occur twice daily, but the real thrill is picking up a Backstage Penguin Pass that allows you to be a keeper for 90 minutes.
For this one, you really need to get your tickets online. Being near the French Quarter, the aquarium can be crowded. Weekdays are the best days to visit with smaller crowds. There is no public parking at the aquarium but there are many lots near the building. I know you’ll want to dine at one of the great New Orleans restaurants, but if you want something quick, there is the Aqua Grill Café at the aquarium that serves made-to-order sandwiches and salads.
Other wildlife encounters can enhance a travel experience: