1. National Aquarium in Baltimore, Maryland
Whale songs, fishy undersea murmurings, and atmospheric music bubble through hidden speakers. The sounds drift through pleasantly dim corridors that build anticipation by hiding what’s just around the next curve. Could it be a giant multispecies tank? An intimate look at something surprising? At one of the small exhibits, a volunteer guide admits, “Sometimes you become attached to an animal here, and this is the one I’m attached to." She’s referring to a giant Pacific octopus―a spectacularly ugly creature that instantly changes color and skin pattern, deftly unscrews jar lids, uses a piece of plastic pipe as a toy, and likes to be tickled. A human visitor looks the cephalopod in the eye and feels an unexpected tug of kinship; 410/576-3800 or aqua.org.
2. Monterey Bay Aquarium, Monterey, California
Exhibits in this converted cannery concentrate on the cool things found just outside in restless Monterey Bay. Wolf-eels and sardines glide through a three-story kelp forest. Artificial waves crash over a walk-through acrylic tunnel, providing life-giving moisture to the weird creatures that inhabit tide pools. Irresistibly cute sea otters cavort. The million-gallon Outer Bay tank showcases bluefin tuna, hammerhead sharks, and other open-ocean denizens. Nearby, in startling contrast, float ethereally beautiful jellyfish. Outdoor decks offer views of the bay―and, occasionally, passing whales; 831/648-4888 or montereybayaquarium.org.
3. SeaWorld, San Diego, California
Sure, it’s a theme park, with a splashy roller coaster and other thrill rides. But it also weaves a strong conservationist message throughout its shows and displays of rays, eels, sharks, penguins, sea otters, dolphins, whales, and other fascinating wildlife. The entertainment educates. After all, Shamu the performing orca and his aquatic buddies have inspired millions of children to learn about ocean inhabitants; 800/257-4268 or seaworld.com.
4. John G. Shedd Aquarium, Chicago, Illinois
One of the oldest aquariums (it opened in 1929, though the fish didn’t arrive until the next year), the Shedd thinks big. The Beaux Arts grandeur of the original building hints at the scope of the experiences within. The aquarium re-creates environments from all over the world, including Caribbean and Philippine reefs, Pacific Northwest seas, the Amazon River, Africa, Australia, and the Great Lakes. Immense curved windows in the Oceanarium wing show off sweeping views of Lake Michigan; 312/939-2438 or sheddaquarium.org.
5. Moody Gardens, Galveston, Texas
Frolicking penguins and seals delight all ages. Close-up views of sharks via an underwater tunnel supply more shuddery thrills. As a bonus, the blue-glass pyramid that houses the aquarium stands as part of a diverse entertainment and education complex. Other attractions include the Rainforest Pyramid (tropical plants and birds), the Discovery Pyramid (science exhibits), an IMAX theater, a paddle-wheel excursion boat, and a hotel with a spa; 800/582-4673 or moodygardens.com.
6. Oregon Coast Aquarium, Newport, Oregon
Unlike the world-ranging mega-aquariums, the friendly, medium-size Oregon Coast Aquarium concentrates on (as the name implies) Oregon’s coast. Fortunately, lots of compelling things live there, including turtles, sea otters, seals, sea lions, many kinds of birds, and an amazing variety of jellyfish. For an added fee, “Animal Encounters" turns visitors into personal chefs for octopuses, sea otters, sharks, or sea lions. Participants help prepare the food, then meet the “diners"; 541/867-3474 or aquarium.org.
7. South Carolina Aquarium, Charleston, South Carolina
In what seems at first like a design oddity, visitors enter at the back of the building. That brings into view a panoramic vista of the Cooper River and Charleston Harbor, thus turning the surrounding environment into one of the exhibits. The strong sense of place continues inside. Children especially love the realistic, slightly spooky re-creations of such environments as a dim, breezy mountain ravine and a foggy blackwater swamp where the “ground" seems to quake underfoot. A sense of playfulness pervades. For example, the aquarium’s designers knew that guests can’t resist peeking into small, unlabeled windows and crannies; 800/722-6455 or scaquarium.org.
8. Mystic Aquarium & Institute for Exploration, Mystic, Connecticut
Relatively small but ambitious, Mystic Aquarium ranges over much of the earth, displaying penguins, cownose rays, sea lions, beluga whales, and, from the Amazon rain forest, piranhas. It also rescues whales, dolphins, and other injured marine animals. And it has joined forces (through the Institute for Exploration) with deep-ocean explorer Robert Ballard, famous for discovering the Titanic wreckage. Spin-off effects from those behind-the-scenes activities should help keep the aquarium on the rise; 860/572-5955 or mysticaquarium.org.
9. Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre, Vancouver, British Columbia
Exhibits cover everything from the Amazon rain forest to an Indonesian coral reef to the nearby waters of Pacific Canada. Sharks, sea otters, dolphins, and sea lions all draw crowds. But the Arctic Canada exhibit shows off the true stars: long, lean, ghost-white beluga whales. The belugas perform several shows a day. The extra-cost Beluga Encounter allows guests to participate in feeding and training sessions, and includes one-on-one meetings with the sleek cetaceans; 604/659-3474 or www.vanaqua.org.
10. The Florida Aquarium, Tampa, Florida
The aquarium’s arching glass roof has become a focal point for the redevelopment of Tampa’s waterfront. The focus on Florida species probably makes it more interesting for out-of-state tourists than locals. Still, the Coral Reef Gallery, with its panoramic windows and walk-through tunnel, packs quite a visual wallop. Children love Explore-A-Shore, a watery playground with animal shows. Extra-cost bonuses allow visitors to swim with fish (including sharks) or take a two-hour boat eco-tour of Tampa Bay; 813/273-4000 or flaquarium.org.