We set off for a day to explore the Channelside area in Tampa and our first stop was The Florida Aquarium. Not only because it’s July in Florida and I wanted an indoor air-conditioned excursion, but because we just love animal life and wanted to see what the aquarium had to offer.
I always love bird-watching so as we set off on the Wetlands Trail, I was pleased to find myself with a close-up view of the beautiful Roseate Spoonbills who are typically much harder to observe from so close in the wild. One in particular was so busy sweeping its uniquely utensil-shaped bill from side to side, churning up sand to sift for something scrumptious, that it seemed completely oblivious to the crowds of people meandering by.
It always surprises me when the spoonbills are confused with flamingos (I heard “Oh, flamingos! My favorite bird!”) because to me they are very distinct but I guess the pink color throws people off. Alas, I was soon pulled away from the spoonbills by my youngest who was squealing with delight about the ducks. And here’s where I don’t know my Lesser Scaup from my Northern Pintail. Thankfully, I had downloaded the Florida Aquarium’s free FLAQ app before our visit so I could quickly identify the object of her intense admiration: the Fulvous Whistling Duck.
My kids know I like owls so they eagerly pointed out this adorable burrowing owl and his gopher tortoise burrow buddy.
My reptile-loving boys were pleased to see a variety of snakes here including two very large (14-foot!!) Burmese pythons and this beautiful curious grey rat snake. I don’t understand adults who repeatedly tap on the glass and wave their fingers around at these creatures. If a snake strikes the glass, it can injure itself and even dislodge its jaw. I just cannot comprehend why people would want to cause that.
My boy loves stingrays and so the touch tank was very popular and I knew we would be there a while. Given all the white chairs nearby, for which I was deeply grateful, I suspected I wasn’t alone. He waited ever so patiently for the rays to drift by, determined to touch not only the cow nose and Atlantic rays, but the beautiful blue spotted specimen that was making the rounds as well. Other touch tanks for sea anemone, sea cucumbers and sea stars were also favorite stops along our way.
I, on the other hand, am always intrigued by the jellyfish who look so other-worldly and mesmerizingly peaceful. Although I know better than to think they’re harmless, having had a jellyfish sting my ray-loving child once while swimming in the Gulf, I’d still happily stand and watch these for a while and skip the touch tanks. But not a chance. Ha!
We are a LEGO-loving family so we thought the few vibrant and whimsical LEGO tanks were a fun inclusion. Of course, they were no match whatsoever for the free and amazing Art of the Brick LEGO exhibition currently just a short 0.6-mile walk away, but then they weren’t meant to be. My daughter loved them, and asked why there weren’t real fish in there too!
There were many beautiful healthy-looking fish in exhibits throughout the Bays & Beaches and Coral Reefs galleries, from a huge 300-pound Goliath grouper to crabs and angel fish and one of my kids’ favorites: the triggerfish. The sharks and, again, the rays were impressive highlights in the Coral Reef Tunnel, along with a large moray eel and of course, a great variety of countless colorful fish. They seemed to be interesting habitats for the animals, with many places to swim or hide. The kids were awestruck and excited to first walk into that tunnel.
Unfortunately, in the largest viewing area which I would expect to be one of the most spectacular, there were huge white decals or maybe chalk paint drawings of sea life obscuring the views of the fascinating creatures inside, for reasons I cannot understand. For the sake of #hashtags and self promotion? The designs were beautifully well done – clearly a talented artist created them and I appreciate art, but that’s not what we came here for. We sat on a front-row bench at one side of the panoramic viewing window for a few minutes wanting to enjoy the fishy antics within but frankly, it was very distracting to try to see beyond the decals and into the tank itself so we decided to move on. I didn’t even try to get a good picture; I just quickly snapped this on our way out. What do you think? Is this a bit much or am I just odd that I find this totally shifts the focus from the creatures to the window?
Don’t get me wrong – we still were glad we’d made the trip to the explore this aquarium and are not surprised it regularly ranks in lists of the top aquariums in the US. We are regulars at Mote Marine in Sarasota but my kids have yet to see the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta, the largest in the world, and I hope to take them there next summer! And I would love to take them to the Monterey Bay Aquarium one day.
It took us a little over 2 hours to make an initial walk through the aquarium, including photo opportunities with a couple of friendly characters – a sea turtle and a penguin – and by then we had worked up an appetite so we headed to Café Ray for lunch. It was a busy summer weekend but we found a shared table on the covered patio. There is a fun-looking new splash pad and playground area outside as well but that wasn’t part of our plans for this day. We planned to go back to a couple of the highlights in the aquarium (namely the ray touch tank, no surprise) and then we were eager to explore the SS American Victory Ship and Mariners Museum which is directly behind the Florida Aquarium and from where I took this picture of the splash pad.
We bought a membership to the Florida Aquarium so we will be back. I’m looking forward to taking my homeschooler there during the week when school is back in session so we have more time and space to enjoy it. Maybe next time we’ll catch a story time, feeding time, or the Secret Sea Life Superhero show. What’s your favorite part of the Florida Aquarium?