Explore the Florida Aquarium

By Kevin Tall


Explore the interactive adventure inside the front door of The Florida Aquarium in Tampa Bay. I try to keep the kids contained as they head over to Horseshoe Crab Lagoon to learn about—and touch—these strange-looking arthropods that live in shallow ocean waters near the shore. While we're down in the lobby, I check out the show schedule for best bets to keep the kids entertained.

Following the map, we start upstairs at the Wetlands Trail. Our journey begins in the realm of fresh water with a spring-fed stream, where we learn about waterfowl such as the bufflehead and ruddy ducks, one of which is currently diving down to the bottom. Careful! Just a few feet away we learn the difference between the American alligator and crocodile. Next, it's a performance by a pair of nature's favorite aquatic court jesters, the North American river otter and beaver, which swim, dive and flip while amassing quite a crowd.

Keep in mind, all of the birds in the Wetlands are free-flying, so you're not surprised when a white ibis swoops by your head, just like the one who landed two feet to my right and stared at me like I did something.

After a quick shoreline stroll it's on to deeper waters in Bays & Beaches. You'll notice that every week is Shark Week here, as you get nose to snout with bonnetheads, the smaller relative of the hammerhead. Check out the colorful cast of characters like the batfish, toadfish, octopi, eels and porcupinefish.

The Tampa Bay aquarium offers a “touching” experience at Stingray Beach, where incredibly smooth stingrays await outstretched hands. After some fun with the stingrays—and some sanitizer—it’s time to venture deeper, to Florida’s Coral Reefs. It’s amazing to see such a variety of ocean life cohabitating in harmony. Like the sign says, “reefs are like underwater cities where the buildings are alive,” and the children all marvel as its residents dart down alleyways and through the busy streets.

If you thought the bonnetheads were fearsome, the sand tiger sharks ahead will certainly make your gills stand up. But like most of the Tampa Bay aquarium’s residents, they glide on by as if you weren’t even there. Smaller tanks bring you closer to the soldierfish and the exotic, invasive and poisonous lionfish.

But the big treasures live within the Coral Reefs’ panoramic gallery window, a breathtaking scene that transports visitors to the middle of the ocean, with everything from the playful sea turtle to the predatory sand tiger shark. It’s also the setting for the Penguin Promenade and dive shows. Get up close with and learn about African black-footed penguins and the threats sharks face in our oceans.

Lights! Camera! Commotion! Ocean Commotion that is, where we wind up our experience with some education and animation to learn more about clownfish, giant spider crabs, mandarin fish, rhinopias and mantis shrimp. The kids are giddy and worn out. Mission accomplished.

Check out other amazing family attractions as you plan your Tampa Bay vacation.