Scuba air bubbles gently rippled past my ears while exchanging glances among the coral with a curious eel and a wide-eyed child through the aquarium glass. While not the Caribbean, the National Aquarium in Baltimore is the next best thing.
For those who grew up on the black and white TV show Sea Hunt making Lloyd Bridges famous (quick, do the math), diving equipment was risky and archaic leaving the experience for the highly-trained few. Today, anyone with the most basic scuba certification can do it, and the National Aquarium’s tank takes only a couple of hours through the Guest Diver Program. No need to leave the big city or blow the travel budget.
Increasing numbers of aquariums around the continent are discovering this new wave of public appreciation and opportunity to have all the fun and none of the work, so channel your inner Jacque Cousteau without the journey. Located an hour from Washington, DC in downtown Baltimore’s renowned Inner Harbor waterfront area, this faux scuba diving trip is a delightfully surreal sure cure for the winter doldrums.
The dive takes place in the elliptical Atlantic Coral Reef tank, where one makes leisurely laps to suit varied tastes. With more than 400 fish representing 50 species in 335,000 gallons of crystal clear sea water, this affordable experience is even more unique when looking back at the public looking at you. Try that at a zoo with fences. My only complaint was my face mask leaking slightly because I couldn’t keep my grinning cheeks from distorting the watertight mask seal.
Make it happen by signing up in advance for their monthly dives with the Aquarium’s contracted scuba operation, Atlantic Edge Dive Center. I was impressed by their all-inclusive, no worries, one-stop-shop approach including an hour-long presentation of diver rules and expectations. Bring your own wet suits, gloves, boots (or socks), masks and fins and the staff will provide all other equipment.
They will also assist the diver into and out of the tank, and include a clear explanation of what to do and not to do. So don’t touch any of the critters – and yes, just like in pet shops, do not tap on the glass. Divers must be at least 18 years old and, if you are a novice, this will be an ideal first experience as well as an opportunity for an additional specialized certification to boot.
Swarms of curious flippering fish will immediately transform any apprehension into wonder and excitement. A highlight of the experience is kneeling upright in one place and letting a handful of the bottom gravel rain down, so the fish swarm around what they think might be a meal (and no, it’s not mean). You will feel like a fish in your very own aquarium.
Even if not there for the guest diver program, the Aquarium is a showpiece of Baltimore and the nation not to be missed in its own right. So make a day out of it and add on the plethora of other exhibits totaling 17,000 animals including the newest and famous open-tank Black Tip Reef Shark exhibit with huge rays and a wondrous underwater semi-sphere observation bubble. Another favorite is the surreal and eerie jellyfish-only tanks. It is easy to forget they have no brains. Others who live for TV’s Shark Week will appreciate the real thing in Shark Alley, with many species slowly circling visitors inside a 225,000-gallon elliptical tank.
For the terrestrial variety, check out the Tropical Rain Forest exhibit of plants, birds, and monkeys on the top level along with Animal Planet Australia’s 120 species of crocodiles, turtles, fishes, snakes and lizards. Local Maryland residents will appreciate the Mountains to the Sea exhibit, which depicts the gradual transition of Maryland habitats from the Appalachian mountain stream through the Atlantic Ocean tidal marsh and coastal beach. As an aquarium hobbyist, I particularly like the Amazon River Forest exhibit. Why? Because many don’t realize that most of the tropical fish in pet shops are small young versions of the surprisingly familiar behemoths that naturally occur in the Amazon.
If the kids are along, take a break to get off your feet and try the 4D Immersion Theater combining high-definition 3D film with special sensory effects built into the theater seats and environment. Finish off the day with Dolphin Discovery, which includes dolphin training and play demonstration. Then explore the up and coming nearby neighborhood of Harbor East’s premium eateries for a leisurely meal. But that is another story.
Check out Aquarium information at aqua.org and the guest diver program HERE . Sign up at atlanticedge.com . The best source of things to do, attractions and places to stay in the area is baltimore.org