Behind the Scenes at 5 Top Aquariums in the U.S.

Share in the care and feeding of marine residents at top U.S. aquariums in Boston, Baltimore, Atlanta, Chicago, Newport and Oregon.

Children pointing at fish in a large aquarium display

by NEA Member Benefits


Aquariums have come a long way since the days when visiting was strictly a spectator sport, with guests parading past static exhibits and viewing fish through thick walls of glass. The move toward interactive displays and “animal chats” have enhanced the visitor’s experience, with many aquariums also offering special tours to meet marine life in a humane way. Now, aquarium-goers can experience everything from dolphin training to diving with sharks or visiting the food-prep lab.

If you’ve ever been curious about what goes on at the aquarium, out of public view, find out by visiting these five aquariums. Keep in mind that these in-depth, insider tours are very popular, so reserve your spot well in advance to avoid disappointment.

1. New England Aquarium in Boston

Photo courtesy of the New England Aquarium

Ever wonder how an aquarium takes care of all its animals? Discover the secrets on a behind-the-scenes tour. The New England Aquarium in Boston offers two options. The first, focusing on the galleries, provides insight into food preparation, medical care and maintenance of tanks and habitats. Another takes you to the Marine Mammal Center, where California sea lions and northern fur seals live, learn and play. You’ll explore their habitats and find out what marine mammal trainers do to keep these creatures happy and engaged. 

Or, sign up for a meet-and-greet with the playful Atlantic harbor seals—and expect to get wet! The aquarium’s focal point—the four-story, 200,000-gallon Giant Ocean Tank—is where Myrtle, the green sea turtle, lives. You can meet this famous resident on a personalized tour that includes a peek at the food preparation kitchen and the technology behind this massive seawater tank. You’ll also be invited to step out on the feeding platform to give lettuce to Myrtle and feed the fish.

Lesson-plan resources: New England Aquarium’s Teacher Resource Center provides access to materials for related lesson planning.

Plan your trip: Boston USA | MassVacation

Driving distances: 2 hours 20 minutes from Hartford, Connecticut | 2 hours 25 minutes from Portland, Maine | 3 hours 15 minutes from Albany, New York | 3 hours 45 minutes from Burlington, Vermont | 4 hours from New York City, New York

Where to stay: Super 8 Watertown/Cambridge/Boston Area | Comfort Inn | Boston Marriott Copley Place

2. National Aquarium in Baltimore, Maryland

Photo courtesy of National Aquarium

Nearly 20,000 creatures call the National Aquarium home. Learn more about them by choosing from more than a dozen special tours. The Insider Tour provides an overall look at the animals and their habitats, as well as the exhibits and the inner workings of running an aquarium. Choose the Animal Care Experience to tour the medical facilities and meet the veterinary team. Interested in coral reefs? Dive into the aquarium’s Atlantic coral reef and hear what divers are doing to protect this fragile environment.

Atlantic bottlenose dolphins are the focus of three tours, including an opportunity to assist the marine mammal team with training. On the adults-only Dive into Art tour, you’ll explore the art and science involved in designing exhibits and natural habitats, followed by a paint-and-sip experience to create your own marine-themed art. Traveling with little ones? A choice of three different family-friendly sleepovers introduce participants to dolphins, ocean predators or the aquarium after dark. 

Lesson-plan resources: Tap into the National Aquarium’s learning resources.

Plan your trip: Visit Baltimore | Visit Maryland

Driving distances: 2 hours from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania | 3 hours 10 minutes from Richmond, Virginia | 4 hours from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Where to stay: Motel 6 Baltimore West | Red Roof Inn Baltimore Northwest | Hyatt Regency Baltimore

3. Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta, Georgia

Georgia Aquarium
Photo courtesy of the Georgia Aquarium

Georgia Aquarium’s commitment to protecting the ocean and its inhabitants is evident in its immersive animal experiences, as each has a learning component to increase awareness. With a trainer’s guidance, enjoy an up-close encounter with dolphins or penguins in their habitat. Or, get acquainted with sea otters with a tour of their facility and an educational presentation. You’ll also have an opportunity to be their personal chef, helping to prepare a meal for them before taking part in a training session.

Would you prefer an encounter with a denizen of the deep? Dive into the 6.3-million-gallon seawater tank to come face-to-face with whale sharks and other aquatic creatures. Or, swim with beluga whales. The Behind the Seas Tours, offered several times daily, provide an in-depth look at the exhibits, the commissary, filtration room for the tank and the animal health center. To experience the aquarium after hours, consider Sleep under the Sea (sleepover and activities for families) or Sips Under the Sea (cocktails, tapas and sleepover for adults).

Lesson-plan resources: Look for lesson plan ideas in the aquarium’s website.

Plan your trip: Discover Atlanta | Explore Georgia

Driving distances: 2 hours 30 minutes from Montgomery, Alabama | 3 hours 30 minutes from Columbia, South Carolina | 4 hours 15 minutes from Nashville, Tennessee

Where to stay: Motel 6 Atlanta Downtown | Red Roof Inn PLUS+ Atlanta-Buckhead | The Westin Peachtree Plaza

4. Shedd Aquarium in Chicago

Photo courtesy of the Shedd Aquarium

Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium is among the world’s largest indoor aquariums. There, you can pull on a pair of rubber boots and shadow a marine mammal trainer for half a day, assisting in the daily routine, including feeding and training of dolphins, belugas, sea lions, sea otters and penguins. If you prefer to focus on a single species, then maybe the penguin or beluga encounter is for you. You’ll get a more in-depth look, learning about the animal, its care and feeding, and conservation efforts to protect the species. Your encounter also includes a hands-on mini-training session with tips from experts who work with these animals.

There’s also a shark feeding tour at the Wild Reef and an opportunity to visit the animal hospital and exhibit galleries. Photo courtesy of the Shedd Aquarium

Lesson-plan resources: Explore the Shedd Aquarium’s educator resources.

Plan your trip: Choose Chicago | Enjoy Illinois

Driving distances: 1 hour 30 minutes from Milwaukee, Wisconsin | 3 hours from Indianapolis, Indiana | 4 hours from Toledo, Ohio and Detroit, Michigan | 5 hours from St. Louis, Missouri

Where to stay: Red Roof Inn Chicago-Alsip  | Hampton Inn Chicago Downtown | Kimpton Hotel Allegro

5. Oregon Coast Aquarium in Newport, Oregon

Photo courtesy of the Oregon Coast Aquarium

The Behind-the-Scenes tour at the Oregon Coast Aquarium gives insight into how the aquarium cares for and feeds more than 15,000 Pacific coast animals in their care. Opt for the Seal and Sea Lion Kisses tour, and you’ll get close enough to smell their fishy breaths, as the trainer describes their habitat and feeding, and demonstrates their training—with ample time for questions. If you’re game, these lovable creatures may give you a peck on the cheek.

Certified divers have the added option of enjoying a unique experience: diving with hundreds of sharks, fish and other marine species. The tour includes an inside look at the Passages of the Deep exhibit with its underwater tunnel through three ocean habitats. That’s also the location of the Sleep with the Sharks experience, which includes a scavenger hunt and tour of the galleries and exhibits—a perfect family outing that allows you to explore without the daytime crowds. 

Lesson-plan resources: Discover the creatures of the Pacific.

Plan your trip: Discover Newport | Travel Oregon

Driving distances: 2 hours 30 minutes from Portland, Oregon | 4 hours 45 minutes from Tacoma, Washington 

Where to stay: Rodeway Inn | La Quinta Inn & Suites Newport | The Whaler

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