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The National Aquarium In Baltimore: An Educational Experience For Everyone

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Did you know that the frog species were the first animals with vocal cords? Did you know that seahorses are actually fish not little serpents or mermaids as legend tells us, and that it is the male who becomes pregnant, not the female? Did you know that an area of a rainforest the size of a football field is being destroyed each second? If not, then you should definitively consider making a visit to the National Aquarium in Baltimore. Dramatic architecture and bright outdoor graphics invite you to investigate further this jewel of the city's vital Inner Harbor area. One of the world's largest and most sophisticated aquatic museums, the city's premier tourist attraction re-creates habitats from all over the world to house more than 15,000 sea creatures in over two million gallons of water. Its glass-and-steel pyramid shape is as unusual and stunning as the diverse sea creatures it houses. Most of the exhibits in the aquarium are part of a self-guided tour, so you can learn at your own pace. By using dramatic video, interactive displays and hi-tech graphics to assist you in your tour, the Aquarium not only introduces you to these special little creatures, but also inspires and intrigues you to want to learn even more. Whatever your interests, the National Aquarium provides a fun and educational visit for all!

Upon entering the facility, you are treated to a 35-foot high waterfall, modeled from an actual waterfall in a Maryland state park. At its base, the moss-covered rocks, freshwater fish, and native species of frogs and turtles invite you to continue your reflection on the diversity of Maryland. Upon entering the lobby, you first notice 16 gurgling "bubble tubes," a just for fun introduction to the world of water. Children gravitate to the floor-to-ceiling tubes, dart between them, hug them, and listen to them. Embarking on the "one-way-street" route through the Main Aquarium Building, you first look down upon Wings in the Water, the world's largest collection of stingrays, silently and gracefully swimming among several species of small sharks. While we were there, several volunteers entered the 265,000-gallon pool to feed them. Volunteers, you say? Yes. Volunteers are essential to the operations at the aquarium. Over 600 volunteers greet the more than 1.5 million yearly visitors to share their enthusiasm and knowledge about the conservation and ecological benefits of our oceans, and the wonderful creatures who call these waters home. I spent what seemed like an hour just leaning over the rails to take a look at six different species of stingrays, along with small nurse, sandbar and bonnethead sharks. If you're feeling stressed, take time to visit this exhibit. Simply watching the natural rhythms of the rays and the sharks as they glide, seemingly without exerting any effort, was enough to put my own biorhythms back into a peacefully calm state. While you are there, be sure to keep an eye open for the Green sea turtle, Calypso, with a missing front flipper. The turtle was rescued by the Riverhead Marine Foundation off Long Island, New York. It was cold-stunned and its left front flipper was severely infected. In order to save the turtle's life, the flipper was amputated. In spite of the missing flipper, the turtle quickly adapted to life in the exhibit and you can see that it is very active. As you take the escalator ride to next level up, you can hear the recorded sounds of surf, sea birds, sea lions and even snapping crustaceans.

The second level introduces visitors to the water cycle, and Maryland's role in the ecology of the Atlantic Ocean. This gallery, named Maryland: Mountains to the sea, traces the water cycle from the mountain pond, where it might be raining!, through a tidal marsh and coastal beach, and out to the deeper water of the continental shelf. Bullfrogs, Maryland blue crabs, turtles, and killdeer, birds which sometimes lay eggs and hatch them right in the exhibit, as well as many species of fishes found locally, live here. On level three, Surviving Through Adaptation, you learn about how organisms adapt to changes in their environment by altering their feeding habits, using camouflage, or hiding on the ocean floor. On this level, everyone finds a favorite spot to linger. It might be with the giant Pacific octopus, African mouth-brooding cichlids, the electric eel from the Amazon, bright orange clownfish with white stripes around the body hiding in anemones, or the rare living coral display with its giant clams, feather-duster worms and pencil urchins. Traveling still upward, we reach level four, The Amazon River Forest. Did you know that the Amazon River basin is approximately the size of the United States, or that it is more than 4,292 miles long - the distance from our own New York to Berlin? Or that it carries the greatest volume of any river in the world with a network of 500 tributaries and sub-streams? Along with these amazing facts about the river itself, by visiting the exhibit you will be able to visit with over 50 species of fish, dwarf caimans, piranhas, giant river turtles, pygmy marmosets, and of course, the world's largest snake, the anaconda, found in the Amazon. One last tidbit, and then we'll move on to the final level. Did you know that more species of fish live in a single tributary of the Amazon than in all of the rivers of North America combined? Take a minute to think that over.

Moving on, we venture to the final destination of the self-guided tour, the Upland Tropical Rain Forest. This is a great way to introduce people, young and old, to the uniqueness of this type of ecosystem. Observation decks and pathways allow visitors to traverse through the humid exhibit to catch a glimpse of brightly colored birds, turtles, lizards, even two-toed tree sloths! The guests are stunned by the creatures' beauty and diversity. Tropical birds fly, poison dart frogs hop, piranhas swim, sloths hang and tamarin monkeys scamper among thousands of rainforest plants in this jungle habitat, situated under a towering glass pyramid that is an icon of Baltimore's Inner Harbor. Tiny poison dart frogs, huge marine toads, and small lizards challenge visitors to spot them. This world-renowned rainforest exhibit includes rare woods, plants and animals that are being destroyed at alarming rates.

What is perhaps the most exciting feature, at least for myself, is simply the dolphin show. The dolphin show is staged in the Marine Mammal Pavilion, which is accessed via an enclosed bridge from the main aquarium building. Be careful as you cross the bridge,

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