South Norwalk, CT: Maritime Aquarium
The temperature in South Norwalk, Connecticut, may average 34 degrees in January, but inside The Maritime Aquarium, the water’s a balmy 50 — balmy, that is, if you’re one of the aquarium’s roughly 1,000 inhabitants, representing the wildlife of Long Island Sound.
Housed in a renovated 19th-century ironworks, the aquarium anchors a revitalized waterfront district, known as SoNo, that’s packed with cosmopolitan restaurants and trendy galleries. So, whether or not you have your own spawn in tow, the aquarium makes a perfect day-trip.
Organized around the different ecological zones of Long Island Sound, exhibits are spread across two levels connected by a stroller-friendly ramp, which leads to a 110,000-gallon Open Ocean tank — the size and biodiversity of which easily rival that of a larger aquarium.
Take a seat in the darkened viewing area and enjoy the aquatic ballet, as sand tiger sharks, roughtail stingrays, stripers, and bluefish circumnavigate the tank while music plays quietly in the background. Around the corner on the upper level, don’t miss the river otters, which are delightfully boisterous near feeding time.
Down on the lower level, check out the 15,000-gallon tank holding two large loggerhead turtles, seemingly quite shy. Nearby, in the main atrium, called the Great Hall, is an indoor/outdoor pool where harbor seals are fed three times a day by their trainer, who also gives a short talk and takes questions from the audience. Get here a few minutes early to guarantee yourself a seat with an underwater view of the seals as they race around the tank, wave to the crowd, and are duly rewarded with herring.
The aquarium also offers a range of activities to keep little hands busy. Build your own wooden toy sailboat at the boat shop, or head for the touch tanks, where kids can get up close and personal with the Sound’s marine life. One pool features cownose rays whose stingers have been trimmed for safety. (Plunge right in — paper towels are provided nearby.) Another tank holds animals from the intertidal zone, including horseshoe crabs, sea stars, whelk egg cases, and snails, which kids may handle under the supervision of aquarium staff.
When it’s time for a break, kids age 5 and under can take off their shoes and pad around on mats as they stick Velcro marine animal cutouts to cloth walls in the Ocean Playspace. Outside, kids at least 42 inches tall are welcome aboard the 40-foot trawler Oceanic for two-and-a-half-hour voyages. From late November to April, take a Winter Creature Cruise to help survey the harbor seal population. And in spring, summer, and fall, Marine Life Study Cruises depart regularly from the aquarium dock to collect a variety of live ocean animals for closer examination.
Back indoors, on through August, is the SpongeBob SquarePants “Adventure Under the Sea” exhibit, starring the popular cartoon character and his friends, including Patrick Star and Mr. Krabs, who introduce kids to their real-life counterparts. The cartoon may lure kids through the door, but once inside, they’re presented with solid science on sponges, mollusks (octopuses and squid), arthropods (lobsters and crabs), and echinoderms (sea stars).
In the mollusk exhibit, near the line for the SpongeBob 4-D ride (tickets $5.50, height requirement minimum 36 inches), make sure you try to catch the cuttlefish in the midst of changing its elusive colors … Just remember not to tap on the glass.