Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
April 16, 2024

How to make the most out of the National Aquarium

By MINGYUAN SONG | February 28, 2024



The jellyfish hall was small but filled with beautiful displays that felt like a dream to walk through. 

I used to love aquariums as a kid — nothing was more fascinating than being in a glass tunnel with fish all around me. I had a thing for sharks, too. Well, I may have been deathly afraid of them, but this feeling was lessened when they were blocked off in another medium of existence. I used to beg my parents to take me to the local aquarium in Shanghai every chance I got. 

I can’t put a finger on when exactly that obsession died away. The last time that I recall visiting something similar to an aquarium was the SeaWorld in San Diego, where I caught one of their last orca shows — but that was ten years ago. At the time, I lived only 45 minutes away from the Monterey Bay Aquarium, which is consistently ranked among the best in the country, but I never visited it once. It’s not like I developed a sudden ethical repulsion against animals in captivity (I still have no moral qualms against it) — I simply lost interest. 

But when my girlfriend visited this past weekend, I suggested that we visit the National Aquarium in Inner Harbor. I realized it was now my third year in Baltimore and I still hadn’t been to its largest tourist attraction, so that was one box to check. I also heard that it’s a must-go date spot, and being in a long-distance relationship, I don’t have too many opportunities to realize in-person dates, so I decided to book the tickets. 

Arriving through the entrance, the moisture was the first thing that I noticed, which contrasted sharply against the bitter winter outside. The first exhibit that we walked through featured reef environments, local ecosystems and interesting settings like rainforests and ocean cliffs. You get to touch jellyfish and shellfish on the third floor, which was certainly a highlight. 

However, the most impressive was arguably the top floor, where the staff built a tropical rainforest environment, with birds and animals roaming around. We even spotted a sloth lazily crawling through the dense canopy, so make sure you keep an eye out for them! Thinking back, this rainforest was probably the source of the humidity. There were also enclosed displays of poison dart frogs, with unbelievable colors and camouflage abilities (Stella and I had a blast playing “Where’s Waldo” with them). 

Exiting the main exhibit led us to the Blue Wonders hall, and as we descended, we passed through Shark Alley. This was the main attraction for me, given my aforementioned interests in these cold-blooded killers. However, the display was underwhelming, to say the least: The water was murky, making it hard to see the sharks clearly. These top predators looked more sad than ruthless, aimlessly and lifelessly swimming in circles around the path.

The Atlantic Coral Reef section was much more lively than the sharks, probably thanks to the fact that more fish can be housed without fierce carnivores roaming around. We pressed our faces against the glass and fixated our focus on one fish. Occasionally, some animal would sneak up on us in our peripheral vision, giving us quite the fright as it passed through right in front of us. This was a personal favorite. 

These attractions took about an hour and a half to walk through, but at that point, I felt a bit fatigued looking at the same things over and over again. I mean, at the end of the day, all the fish and turtles and reefs look about the same. We still walked through the dolphin, jellyfish and Australian displays, but none caught my attention (except maybe the gray, prison-like pool that all the dolphins are trapped in). 

We left after hitting the gift shop. I bought my kid sister a narwhal keychain but found everything else somewhat disappointing. She is in her unicorn phase right now and will lose her mind when she finds out they actually exist in the ocean (she does, however, still think that unicorns are real as all 7-year-olds tend to, and I won’t be the one to break the news). 

But the whole time I was thinking how much more fun my sister would have here. In fact, most of the tourists at the aquarium were elementary school-age kids. They fly from display to display and never cease to be amazed by another display of (in my eyes) ordinary fish. That’s the sense of wonder that I lost, which no longer allows me to enjoy aquariums and zoos as much as I did as a kid. College students are another popular demographic, but they are all holding iPads around the displays, presumably completing an assignment for General Biology Lab II. 

I did the same two years ago, but I went to the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore instead. That was the most fun that I had in a long time, exploring a new place with new friends. Sometimes it’s liberating to allow yourself in the mindset of a kid again, free from the stress of midterms and papers, and to just focus on the wonder in front of you. Just go on Fridays after 5 p.m., and the tickets are half off ($25). 

At the end of the day, quite ironically, Stella and I finished our date at a seafood restaurant. 

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