Tampa Bay summers only know two settings, hot and hotter. So my friend and I were all too happy to escape the sweat-inducing heat and humidity for a few fun-filled hours at the Florida Aquarium.
Located in downtown Tampa, this incredible oasis of diverse marine life serves up equal parts education and entertainment. The Florida Aquarium is an ideal indoor reprieve or alternative to the Children's Museum. Kids of all ages will be awe-struck by the slithering, snapping, and soaring creatures of the wetlands, coral reefs, and marshes.
While at first glance, I may not fall into the Aquarium's most popular demographic. I tend to have the same thrill palette as a five-year-old and will gladly 'ooh' and 'awe' over adorable lemurs and giant Sea Turtles all day. I couldn't wait to tackle the dozens of habitats, exhibits, and experiences available at the Aquarium...
Florida Aquarium Tickets
My companion and I were lucky enough to have arranged our Florida Aquarium Tickets ahead of time. For a seamless visit, I highly recommend pre-purchasing your tickets through Tripster and scouting out your parking. We were able to secure street parking, but there is also official aquarium parking available in a lot on the corner of Channelside Drive and York Street.
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While schools of fish and waddling African Penguins may be the main draw to downtown Tampa, it would be a shame not to seek out the Bay's other top family-friendly attractions, including:
Always remember you can customize your Aquarium experience with an additional Wild Dolphin Cruise. This ocean-bound adventure will have you cruising through Tampa Bay on a 72-foot catamaran seeking out bottlenose dolphins, native bird species, and more.
Wetlands of Florida
While I had been advised to visit the Aquarium on a Tuesday to encounter fewer crowds, the multi-levels of this esteemed institution were teeming with children this June day. All around us, we heard the cacophony of children and the splashing of ducks, turtles, and free-flying birds.
We kicked off our journey into the marine mysteries of the Sunshine State with a stroll through the Wetland's Trail. Thankfully my friend is both a homegrown Florida boy and an accomplished fisherman. As a result, he could quickly identify many of the native fish and marine life on sight.
Enclosed by an 80-foot glass dome, the Wetlands of Florida boasted plenty of lazy alligators, stunning Roseate Spoonbills, and tightly coiled Burmese Pythons. The vast biodiversity of Florida instantly struck me. From freshwater springs to mangroves, every inch of H20 created a home for a distinct creature.
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Dodging strollers and sugar-fueled kids, I made a beeline to the frolicking river otters, aka my spirit animal. Mesmerized by their playful spirit and sweeping whiskers, it was the perfect moment to capture for a social media-worthy post. For all image-inclined visitors, you can create some epic photo ops by using your phone to scan the QR codes on the Wave posters located throughout the Aquarium.
Although my friend and I were firmly in the camp of 'not snake fans,' we were excited to catch the tail end of a keeper talk and meet Ally the Eastern Rat Snake. While her skin was smooth to touch, I think I will still be sticking to cute and fuzzy pets from here on out.
Journey to Madagascar
Who knew Africa was so close? With a quick jog up the stairs, we were transported to the mysterious island of Madagascar. This unique ecosystem is a true animal lover's delight featuring Fluorescent geckos, wide-eyed lemurs, and hissing cockroaches. In fact, over 80% of Madagascar's plants and animals are endemic, meaning they are found nowhere else on earth.
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Throughout our species-filled sojourn, it was easy to glean interesting and educational facts on the habitats, plants, and animals we were viewing, thanks to the Aquarium's easy-to-read plaques.
I was enthralled by the ring-tailed lemurs' grooming habits.
"They're kissing,' I squealed, 'try checking for fleas,' my friend chuckled.
It turns out #girlpower isn't just strictly a human thing. So move over, Beyonce, because lemurs are all about fierce females. From getting to eat first to having their pick of the juiciest fruit, girls run this world!
Bays and Beaches
Rocky refuges, creepy eels, and curious pufferfish, oh my! Next up on our under-the-sea excursion was the abundant ecosystem of coastal Florida. As my family recently relocated to the Tampa Bay area, I loved learning more about this nearby aquatic expanse. But, unbeknownst to me, a world of wonder lies underneath many of Tampa's rock pilings and bridges.
Shout out to the highly observant kid who spotted the sulking moray eel in the corner. Eels are sexually dimorphic, which means that males and females can be distinguished by visible traits. Due to this dude's grand size, he appeared to be a male.
Captivated by the Spiny Lobsters and perhaps just a tad hungry, I listened raptly as my friend explained the mechanics of lobster diving.
Because I am a child at heart, I was chomping at the bit to get my fingers on some slippery stingrays. I've always loved the upside-down smiley faces that grace rays' bellies and was all too eager to touch the velvety soft wing tips of the Aquarium's Cownose Rays.
Unfortunately, our arrival coincided with the ray's nap time. Yes, just like your children, stingrays need adequate R&R to not be cranky. The lovely docent advised us to return in 10 minutes when the Rays would be willing and ready to receive our touch.
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We returned; we touched and got splashed by many gliding rays. Spoiler alert: their skin feels like a wet banana peel!
No Bone Zone
Prepare yourself for a chill as you plunge your hands into the icy waters of the No Bone Zone. One of the Aquarium's three interactive touch pools, this is a can't-miss experience.
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The giant green anemone was enchantingly beautiful, the starfish spiny, but the sea cucumber took home the prize for the strangest sensation. Squishy, soft, and oh so delightful, it was quite possibly my favorite thing to touch.
Before we made our way to what many consider the Aquarium's main attraction, we peeked into the Restoring Florida's Coral Reefs display, partly made possible with help from the NFL. As a football fanatic and loyal Buccs fan, my friend let me know that the team had chosen to celebrate last year's Super Bowl win at the Aquarium. I guess Tom Brady must really like fish?
I was spellbound when I stepped into the Coral Reef curved enclosure featuring over 500,000 gallons of water. The Aquarium's largest habitat transports you deep underwater to a mystical universe of reef fish, sand tiger sharks, sea turtles, and giant stingrays.
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The panoramic views afforded by the glass are unbeatable. Despite the moderate crowds, I felt instantly calmed by the graceful marine life swimming above.
Waves of Wonder
I'm not going to lie; I one day aspire to acquire the level of wealth where I can afford a jellyfish tank. Something about these little translucent blobs just relaxes me. I could have spent hours staring at Waves of Wonder's undulating jellies and vibrant anemones.
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However, my friend and I had a schedule to stick to. Besides everyone's favorite Nemo, this exhibit is also home to a great Pacific Octopus. Awesomely intelligent and blessed with a beautiful rosy hue, these fascinating creatures had me rethinking my addiction to calamari.
The Splash Pad
Are you visiting during the summer? Pack that swimsuit as the Aquarium's on-site water park is the perfect way to refresh on a scorching Tampa day. Unfortunately, I had forgotten my bikini at home.
However, thanks to the balmy June temperatures, the park's many sprays, slides, and dump buckets were crawling with children.
My fish-loving companion was actually an accomplished Aquarium goer, having previously visited with his nephew. He advised me that we had to sneak in a showing at the 4Ducks Theater. We inquired about the next screening, and the gracious attendant was able to sneak us into the 4D Octopus flick. I had no idea what to expect in this full-body sensory experience. We donned our 3D glasses and got ready for the action to begin.
Immediately we were welcomed to the depths of the ocean by the dulcet tones of David Attenborough. As we watched camouflaging octopuses evade predators and seek out prey, our seats came to life! Jumps, jolts, and plenty of rocking motion accompanied the crescendoing drama on-screen. Sprays of cool water, aromatic scents, and more attacked our senses at every turn.
As eels and other predators attacked, you could feel the vibrations. Every audience member was on board for this wild ride, including my kid neighbor, who couldn't stop screaming. Be prepared; the amount of water mist and spray is quite liberal, so you may leave with plenty of mascara running down your face.
Dressed to impress, the African Penguins are one of the Aquarium's newest additions. I'm a big fan of the film Happy Feet, so I couldn't wait to capture some of their superior swimming on video. This tuxedo-clad species hails from South Africa and loves hot weather. Endlessly charming, these love birds mate for life.
Rounding out our day of fish, reptiles, and marine mammals with some more hands-on experience, we ducked back inside to scope out Moon Bay. This ethereal installation was full of pulsating clear orbs that I was just dying to stroke. Fun fact, Moon Bay is one of only four moon jelly touch experiences in the U.S.
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As we gazed at the 'smack,' or group of Moon Jellyfish, the docent informed us to touch gently with two fingers. While I assumed these North Atlantic creatures must be sting-free, we learned these jellies actually can impart a minor sting via their tentacles. Fortunately for our fingers, their sting is almost entirely undetectable by humans.
As a lifelong swimmer and surfer, I have always loved the ocean. Never am I happier than when I am paddling out for a sun-soaked surf session. Throughout my visit, I was struck by the Aquarium's impressive conservation efforts and commitment to ocean preservation.
Wandering from mangroves to colorful coral reefs made me realize the true beauty and breadth of Florida's waters.
From giant octopuses to silky smooth Cownose Rays, I was confronted by the magnificence of mother nature at every turn.
Whether you kayak, surf, swim, or just prefer dry land, the Florida Aquarium is a fantastic foray into the dazzling diversity of our oceans.
Tell me, What's Your Favorite Florida Aquarium Animal?
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