A Fishy Story: What’s Doing at Mystic Aquarium
By Joan Rattner Heilman
It’s not all about fish at the Mystic Aquarium in Connecticut. Along with watery wonders like exotic jellyfish, toothy sharks, and slithering stingrays, the newest programs are all about creatures who walk on the land, fly, and maybe do some swimming as well. For example, the recently opened “Crittercam” exhibition features lions and tigers, bears, penguins, turtles, sea lions (and, yes, sharks) that have been fitted out with video cameras so visitors can watch them go about their private business in their native habitats on land or underwater.
Birds are a big deal at the Aquarium this year too. At the new Birds of Prey Summer program, presented in conjunction with the Audubon Society of Rhode Island, five rehabilitated raptors are the stars of a 45-minute educational show. Rescued after life-threatening injuries, a red-tailed hawk, an Eastern screech owl, Great Horned Howl, and two barred owls display their special talents four times every Saturday. Another bunch of birds on the agenda in 2011 are “Birds of the Outback,” an interactive exhibit that is the only one of its kind in New England. Hundreds of birds native to Australia fly freely in a 1,200-square-foot aviary waiting to be fed by hand.
The biggest news at the Aquarium this year, though, is the Nautilus Live Theater that, starting in mid-July, beams high-definition real-time life images of the explorations aboard and beneath the E/V Nautilus, a specially equipped discovery vessel, as it searches for ancient shipwrecks at the bottom of the sea along the coast of Greece. While you watch what’s happening over there at that very moment, you can converse with the crew. Then, back home, you can keep up with the explorations, again live, online.
On a recent visit, I joined a small group in a close encounter with one of the Aquarium’s rare beluga whales. Six of us (all of whom had to be over 16 and at least 5’ tall) pulled on waterproof waist-high waders and sloshed into a pool to meet a chubby 11-foot-long, 1,000-pound white beluga named Juno. The blubbery creature with soft white skin emitted squeaks, clicks and hums as he follow his trainer’s gestures, allowing us to stroke his head, examine his tiny teeth and smooth tongue, ask him to turn in circles, spit and “sing,” all the while consuming a huge pail of fish.
Then on to a close-up encounter with a penguin, another xperience recently added to the Aquarium’s agenda. For this one, about a dozen people perched on cushions around the perimeter of a room to meet a friendly little African penguin that meandered about the room while his (or her) trainer talked about penguin physiology, behaviors, species, and conservation. He was so bonded with the trainer, however, that he spent much of his time sitting on her lap eager to be petted. The group took turns stroking him, listening to his heart with a stethoscope, and feeling his hard little wings.
Much of the marine museum is devoted, of course, to exhibits designed to intrigue children, including “touch me” tanks featuring sting rays, bamboo sharks, crabs and sea turtles. Every day, sea lions and seals do their tricks for an audience while filling up on fish. Six different species of exotic jellyfish are on display. Sharks and sting rays swim by at eye level, along with moray eels and barracuda. And an extensive collection of marine animals, including New England’s only beluga whales, are on display.
More for kids: Every Saturday morning through October, a brand-new puppet show and treasure hunt, “Luna’s Sea,” is performed at the Cornerstone Playhouse across the street in Olde Mistick Village.
Joan Rattner Heilman, a New York travel writer is the author of scores of magazine and newspaper articles and columns and over a dozen books, including Unbelievably Good Deals and Great Adventures That You Absolutely Can’t Get Unless You’re Over 50.