Tuesday, February 2, 2010

The Free Aquarium and the National Aquarium

Bret: She works down at the cheap zoo.
Jemaine: The pet store?

Fans of the HBO comedy series "Flight of the Conchords" will recognize this dialogue from the Season 2 episode "Wingmen" in which clueless Bret confides to his slightly more perceptive roommate Jemaine about his new crush, a pet store employee. This struck me as especially funny since AS and I are in the habit of visiting the "free aquarium" on a regular basis. We shop at Petco primarily for our cat's food but always expect to stay a while so AS can watch freshwater fish, especially fluid little fan-tailed carp, and turtles swim in aquariums. From as early as just a few months of age, he has been fascinated by the colors and movement of aquatic animals and the sight and sound of streaming bubbles as oxygen is pumped in their tanks.

I grew up in a family of "animal people" and had pets of every persuasion from dogs to rodents to fish. Becoming a caretaker at a young age taught me responsibility and compassion for living things, and I want to foster these traits in my son as well. But I buried one too many goldfish as a young person to entertain buying one for AS. At the very least, he is too young for the "What happens when we die?" discussion, and I can't justify stealthily swapping out a dead fish for an identical live one every time something inevitably goes wrong. Fish in aquariums tend to thrive better than those in fishbowls, but setting up a large tank is not an option in our apartment building due to the possibility of water damage. So when we need our fish fix (or invertebrates, amphibians and reptiles), we enjoy the free experience at the pet store or take a trip downtown to the National Aquarium for a real scholarly water adventure.

You won't find fan-tailed carp or goldfish at the newly renovated aquarium, nor can you view the exhibits for free, but you will encounter over 250 amazing species to mesmerize the marine life enthusiasts in your family. Located in the lower level of the Department of Commerce Building at 1401 Constitution Avenue, NW, the National Aquarium in Washington, DC, is the little sister to a larger venue of the same name in Baltimore's Inner Harbor. While the DC space, and therefore the collection, is scaled down, the location is conveniently located near the Federal Triangle Metro station and general admission tickets are only $9 for adults, $4 for children (ages 3-11) and free for tots up under age 3. Baltimore tickets will put you back $29.95 for adults and $24.95 for children ages 3-11, and, of course, it's a long drive to get there.

Established as the nation's first (...another first for DC! woot!) aquarium in 1873, the National Aquarium in DC has been located in the Commerce Building since 1932. To make your trip more enjoyable, be prepared to pay by cash or check as they are unable to process credit cards. Strollers are permitted but difficult to lug down the interior stairs of the Commerce Building to the aquarium entrance. Ask the security personnel where to access to the full-service elevator instead. Also, the Aquarium is open daily 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., but last admission is at 4:30 p.m.

The Aquarium is promoted as the place to take a "refreshing" 45-minute self-guided tour and perfect for a short break from the office on a busy work day due to its proximity to offices downtown. But I was reminded by a local NBC news feature that we hadn't returned since it received an "extreme makeover" in 2008 and a new exhibit, America's Aquatic Treasures was introduced, so we made an effort to take the Metro bus there the following weekend. After passing through a metal detector and descending several flights of steps, we paid our admission fee and entered into the dim, otherworldy halls of the exhibit galleries. In fact, it is so dark that I considered the benefits of a Kinderkord toddler leash for the first time.

The National Marine Sanctuaries and National Parks gallery highlights marine animals and habitats that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) works to preserve and protect across our nation. The mission of the NOAA National Marine Sanctuary Program is to educate the American people about our marine heritage and to help "balance enjoyment and use with long-term conservation" through increased public awareness, scientific research and monitoring of these national treasures. Folks hailing from the eastern half of the country, as we do, will likely appreciate the Florida Everglades and Gray's Reef National Marine Sanctuary exhibits. The spacious Everglades exhibit features the American Alligator (once near extinction due to habitat destruction and poor water quality), Scarlet King Snakes, and a relative of scorpions called the Vinegaroon. AS stood with hands pressed up against the glass and followed turtles and 3-foot gators swimming past at his eye level. Gray’s Reef, located in the Atlantic Ocean off the shores of Sapelo Island, Georgia, is one of the largest sandstone reefs in the southeastern U.S. and is home to a rich collection of fascinating invertebrates, such as sea stars, urchins and anemones, and impressive vertebrates like the moray eel. We were also pleased to see that local environments, including the Potomac River, are featured in the American Freshwater Ecosystems gallery. The notorious Snake Head Fish, invasive to the Potomac and impacting its native species, can be seen here.

While we were visiting on a Sunday, a child's birthday party was in progress. Kids, under adult supervision, were zooming up and down the halls making stops along the way to point out something cool they had just discovered. The group of ten was eventually rounded-up and seated on the floor in the Amazon River Basin Gallery to anxiously await a Piranha feeding demonstration before returning to the special events room for cake and gift-opening. But you don't have to attend a birthday party to observe a feeding demonstration and hear live commentary from an aquarist. The piranhas are fed every Sunday, sharks are fed Monday, Wednesday and Saturday in the Patch Reefs Gallery, and alligators are fed every Friday at 2 p.m. for public viewing. Leopard Sharks, dainty yellow Longsnout Seahorses, an Electric Eel, and technicolor Poison Dart Frogs are other crowd-pleasers.

The Aqua Shop is located across from the aquarium entrance, and we couldn't leave without taking a quick peak. We browsed the assortment of shells and sharks teeth, children's science books, t-shirts and posters, but didn't see any "must haves" for AS at the gift shop's prices. We did discover some relatively affordable original art for sale. Small white canvases were painted in vibrant non-toxic water-based paints by "Picasso Turtles", Map Turtles and Red-eared Sliders supervised by trained herpetologists at the aquarium. To my somewhat discerning eye, it appeared as though the reptiles had first crawled through paint and then across the canvas, leaving colorful, abstract markings in their wake. In the end, we refrained from buying anything but instead considered requesting a gift membership or adopting an animal to directly help the National Aquarium save endangered wildlife. The Aquarium is a nonprofit organization funded through private and public support and admission revenue; public donations and volunteerism help the National Aquarium Institute in their mission to inspire people "to enjoy, respect, and protect the aquatic world".

1 comment:

  1. The 42 bus stops just a couple of blocks north of the aquarium on 14th Street.



Copyright 2009 Kristen Morse All Rights Reserved