Touch a jellyfish, get close to prowling sharks, laugh at the antics of river otters, and “ooh” and “aah” at a baby sea turtle during a fun adventure in The Maritime Aquarium at Norwalk.
Celebrating its 30th anniversary this summer, this trending attraction is unlike other aquariums because it focuses primarily on one body of water – that is: Long Island Sound, the “Estuary of National Significance” just outside its doors. Yet, based on traveler ratings on TripAdvisor.com, The Maritime Aquarium is the number one aquarium in New England, ranking higher than the New England Aquarium in Boston and Mystic (Connecticut) Aquarium.
Norwalk’s location in southwestern Connecticut makes The Maritime Aquarium a great destination for a day trip or a perfect stop while traveling between New York and Boston. The Aquarium is conveniently located minutes off I-95 in the city’s historic waterfront South Norwalk neighborhood. Commonly referred to as “SoNo,” the popular area offers a wide variety of acclaimed restaurants on and near the city harbor, all within easy walking distance from the Aquarium.
A visit to The Maritime Aquarium is a fascinating exploration of Long Island Sound. As an arm of the Atlantic Ocean, the Sound is an environment rich in aquatic life, even within sight of heavily urbanized New York City. The Sound’s marine population – and The Maritime Aquarium’s exhibits – include sharks, seals, sea turtles, jellyfish and varieties of crabs, fish and mollusks, like delicious and historically important oysters and clams.
Guests first enter Newman’s Own Hall and encounter harbor seals swim
ming in a unique indoor/ outdoor exhibit. The ambassador animal represented in The Maritime Aquarium’s logo, harbor seals are one of the most common seals in New England waters. Be sure to catch one of the seal-training demonstrations, held at 11:45 a.m. and 1:45 and 3:45 p.m. daily. These public sessions are a great opportunity for visitors to ask questions of the animal-husbandry staff.
The journey through Long Island Sound starts at the edge of Long Island Sound – at a shallow salt marsh – and progresses through 20 deeper marine environments to reach the open waters of the Sound and the ocean beyond. The trip concludes with the Aquarium’s signature exhibit – a 110,000-gallon display featuring 8-foot sharks – followed by “Journey With Jellies” with its mesmerizing species of jellies, and finally a large exhibit that is home to two large green sea turtles.
The Maritime Aquarium boasts one of the largest jellyfish exhibits on the East Coast, with a dozen species – and thousands of individual jellies – on display. Every single jelly is “cultured” (or grown) in-house, and that complex and delicate operation is open for guests to witness.
An additional gallery offers a detour into the Sound’s critical watershed, which is home to river otters and migrating (and endangered) salmon and sturgeon. The watershed is also where many of the Aquarium’s guests live, and encouraging them to become active stewards for Long Island Sound is part of the attraction’s mission.
The Maritime Aquarium’s exhibits are carefully designed to give people of all ages entertaining, educational and emotional experiences with animals. An Intertidal Touch Tank offers the chance to get a real feel for (literally) crabs, whelks, sea stars and ot
her shoreline animals. Additionally, at the Shark & Ray Touch Pool and the “Jiggle A Jelly” exhibit, guests may safely touch creatures we have been told all our lives to avoid. These “touch” experiences are guided by the Aquarium’s 300-plus trained volunteers.
A new star of the Aquarium is a baby loggerhead sea turtle, being fostered through its first year of life in Norwalk. The guest sea turtle is at The Maritime Aquarium as part of a loan program of the North Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores, whose staff inspects turtle nests on beaches to look for “stragglers” – newly hatched turtles that, for various reasons, did not make it into the sea. These tiny turtles are rescued and then raised for a year at loan institutions, such as The Maritime Aquarium.
Named Squirt by guests, the little loggerhead in Norwalk will be returned to North Carolina in October to be released into the Atlantic when – as a year-old turtle – it has a greater chance of survival. At that time, a new rescued hatchling will be brought back to The Maritime Aquarium and the annual process will start again in the “Sea Turtle Nursery.”
Other do-not-miss exhibits include: “Go Fish,” which features commercially important fish in the Aquarium’s second-largest exhibit while stressing the importance of sustainable seafood and our need to be smart seafood consumers; and “Just Add Water,” a new exhibit that tracks from arid desert to damp rain forest, and features animals adapted to those habitats, such as tortoises, tamarins, a caiman, quail, porcupine and more.
When visiting, factor in time for a spectacular IMAX movie – one 45-minute film is included with admission. The Maritime Aquarium has the largest IMAX theater in Connecticut, boasting a screen that is six stories high and showing movies with 15/70mm film projection, an old-school method that film aficionados say – in this digital age – remains the sharpest, clearest way to view a movie. This summer, choose between “Backyard Wilderness” (filmed not far from the Aquarium in Croton-on-Hudson, New York) and “Pandas.”
Another option for your visit is scheduling an outing onto Long Island Sound aboard The Maritime Aquarium’s unique R/V Spirit of the Sound. The 64-foot catamaran is America’s first research vessel with quiet hybrid-electric propulsion. “Marine Life Encounter Cruises” let participants encounter an exciting variety of animals brought up right out of the Sound right before their eyes – species of fish, crabs, mollusks and always a surprise or two. Capacity is 40 for these 2.5-hour cruises. Charter a morning cruise at 9 a.m. or book tickets for the regular 1:15 p.m. public departures (daily in July & August; on weekends May-June and September-Ocober).
For senior groups, fall is an excellent time to schedule a visit. The summer crowds are gone, and school field trips are yet to ramp up.
The Maritime Aquarium offers easy access from I-95, nearby bus parking, plenty of seating throughout our galleries, wide selections in our on-site cafeteria, and keepsakes for everyone in our large gift shop.
A 501(c)3 not-for-profit institution, The Maritime Aquarium holds the prestigious accreditation of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), the body that sets the top standards for animal care and visitor safety at zoos and aquariums. Only eight percent of the animal exhibitors in North Amercia licensed to display live animals are accredited by the AZA.
Learn more about the aquarium and plan a visit, including nearby “SoNo” restaurants, by going online to maritimeaquarium.org. To schedule a group visit, call (203) 852-0700, ext. 2206.