Here on land, the wonders of nature are easy to see -- strap on some hiking boots or climb on your mountain bike and off you go. Underwater, however, unless you're a certified SCUBA diver, colorful creatures of the deep remain mysterious, foreign, and otherwise unknown.
This is where aquariums come in. These facilities bring us face-to-face with critters that spend most or all of their lives underwater, taking us comfortably from our terrestrial world to their aquatic one. We see fish, eels, and marine mammals galore. The best part, of course, is that in the process, we don't get wet at all.
My personal favorite aquarium in the country is the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago. The Shedd opened in the 1920s as one of the first and finest aquariums in the world. During my years as an undergraduate at nearby Northwestern University, I volunteered there; without my friends the fishes, I still wonder if I actually would have graduated college.
Today, the biggest draw is the "Oceanarium," a 3-million gallon saltwater tank divvied up into a number of habitats. Visitors wander along a wooden boardwalk that passes each of these pools. Along the way, they can stop to enjoy Pacific White-Sided dolphins, Alaskan sea otters, Harbor seals, and Beluga whales.
The Beluga habitat in particular has been a bit of a nursery in recent years, as Shedd belugas have given birth to three calves since 2000. Currently, Mauyak, one of four females, is estimated to be 9 to 11 months pregnant. Belugas have a gestation period of 14 to 16 months, so the storks are set to deliver this newest calf in summer or early fall.
Another popular aquarium is the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta. This facility, which opened in 2005, was built by Bernie Marcus, who co-founded Home Depot. With more than 8 million gallons of salt and fresh water, it is the largest aquarium in the world. The Ocean Voyager exhibit takes up most of that space, and is home to two 35-foot whale sharks -- the largest fish in the world. The Cold Water Quest exhibit boasts another behemoth -- a giant Pacific octopus. My favorite exhibit is the Georgia Explorer, which highlights a man-made reef that houses two Loggerhead sea turtles.
The Georgia Explorer exhibit features a number of interactive habitats, as well. When I visited recently, I spent nearly an hour leaning over touch pools teeming with sea stars, stingrays, and shrimp. At one point, I put my hands on the bottom and watched as a horseshoe crab skittered across them. The crab's legs were tickly, like sharp fingers.
Of course no discussion of aquariums would be complete without a mention of the Monterey Bay Aquarium in Monterey, California. While other facilities feature artificial habitats for mammals and other large fish, this aquarium sits on the edge of one of the world's most diverse ecosystems, and has opted to keep the biggest creatures in the wild. Most of the exhibits here focus on smaller animals; the Kelp Forest exhibit, for example, highlights some of the fish and eels that live in kelp beds found just offshore. Elsewhere in the aquarium, a jellyfish exhibit portrays these ghostly invertebrates as art, presenting them in tanks flanked with picture frames.
The main attraction is undoubtedly the Outer Bay exhibit, a million-gallon habitat that is home to the largest community of open-ocean animals anywhere on Earth. Earlier this year, this exhibit briefly housed a juvenile Great White Shark; with so much marine life just beyond the aquarium's walls, there's no telling what will be there next.
Matt Villano is a writer and editor based in Half Moon Bay, California. His articles have appeared in The New York Times, Newsweek, Forbes, San Francisco Chronicle and many other publications. When he's not working, he likes running and watching whales.