33. Mystic Aquarium

Lion(fish) and Tiger(sharks) and Bare(ly Much Else)
Mystic section of Stonington
(Google Maps Location)
October 11, 2007

mq33y.jpgHere I sit, four months after our little family visit to the Mystic Aquarium, wondering how the heck I’m going to capture not only all that we saw there, but also the spirit of the place. I really have no excuse for the delay other than procrastination – the aquarium (and the Seaport Living Museum – CTMQ’s visit here) is one of Connecticut’s biggest tourist draws and I’ve felt compelled to do it justice in my write up.

But now that a season has passed, I no longer feel that way. And while we had a great time there, and no one likes aquariums more than I, it must be said up front: This place isn’t really all that fantastic. Sorry, but it’s true.

mq33g.jpgPerhaps I hold a grudge because they denied me an internship/job when I interviewed there while in college (I did get an A in Ichthyology, it’s true) or maybe it’s because I’m spoiled having been to some of the country’s best aquariums before. Or it could be because I’d already been to Mystic a few times before. I’m not sure, but Hoang and I agreed; we were slightly unimpressed. In fact, for me, my favorite/most impressive part of our experience was when Damian gave his first clear-cut CTMQ Thumbs-Up seen here in an exclusive extra-large format, above.

And to be fair up front, I did speed through the non-aquarium portion of the place, because our little guy was getting a bit cranky/tired/hungry. But more on that later. We had free passes (Hey, I’m good, what can I say?) which was nice as the ticket price is 22 bucks a head. The overcast sky was threatening, so we immediately headed for the outdoor exhibits to beat the cold rain.

mq33b.jpgThe first such exhibit was “Alaska Coast,” a rather sprawling mixed tank/land area. Or, as their website says, “Studded with jagged-rocks, glacial streams and northern evergreens, the Arctic Coast exhibit is home to the Aquarium’s beluga whales. This one-acre outdoor habitat features three interconnected pools holding more than 800,000-gallons of salt water. You will get literally face to face with the beluga whales through a series of three large underwater viewing windows.”

We learned that belugas are 40% blubber and that the only ones in New England are here! “Beluga” means “the white one” in Russian! More interestingly, they are the only whales that can swim backwards to better navigate the Arctic ice. From there, it was over to the Penguin Discovery Zone which was a window with some random interns sitting in it. But just behind that was the outdoor African penguin exhibit – above and below water viewing available – and who doesn’t love penguins? No one, that’s who. But a louder exhibit beckoned, and every toddler prefers noise to quite flightless birds.

mq33c.jpgThe Pribilof Islands exhibit is home to the northern fur seals and endangered Steller sea lions. The Pribilof Islands are nature’s outposts in the Bering Sea and America’s farthest flung shores” says the brochure. Damian loves the seals so we stood in the drizzle for a good 10 minutes watching them and imitating their sounds.

Some stellar Stellar facts: “Mystic Aquarium is one of four facilities in North America (Here, Vancouver Aquarium, Alaska Sea Life Center, Oregon Zoo) where you can actually view Steller Sea Lions. There’s, named Kodiak, is 9 years old and weighs just over 1,700 pounds. Male Steller Sea Lions can reach as much as 2,200 pounds, while females average close to 600 pounds.

For some unknown reason, the Stellar sea lions are in severe decline – 80% in Alaska in the last 30 years. Of course this is being studied from all angles but we made sure to let Damian know that his kids may never be so lucky as to get yelped at by one of these massive mammals.

From there, we were excited to see the Marsh Trek. Damian knows and enjoys his turtles and snakes and frogs and such. Annnnnnd it was closed. Furthermore, it’s not even mentioned on the aquarium’s website and while on the brochure’s map, there is no description. So here is mine:

“Marsh Trek! Walk along a boardwalk above a fetid swamp and catch a glimpse of lilypads and other aquatic flora!”

“Marsh Trek! See our collection of dried out waterways full of change thrown in by superstitious and ignorant visitors!”

Slightly disappointed (thankfully, Damian can’t read that he was missing turtles. The boy likes turtles. Not as much as this boy, but still…) we headed under cover just as it started raining slightly harder. There is a cool cownose ray petting tank, that can’t be missed.

mq33h.jpg“Some say they have a nose like a cow, but these cownose rays are actually related to the shark family, with cartilage and a small, shark-like dorsal fin. They are active and inquisitive, preferring to swim near the top of the tank, unlike other species of rays that rest on the bottom.” Oh brochure, you’re so “brochure-y.”

I also learned that they have a series of 7 powerful tooth plates in either jaw that allow them to feed on hard shelled mollusks such as clams and mussels. And schools of up to 10,000 cownose rays are sometimes seen migrating between south Florida and Mexico. And Hoang touched one. Now all she has to do is touch our friend Ray’s cownose. Let’s go inside already.

Yes, inside the pitch-black room where my tiny little Canon’s flash didn’t help a bit. The aquatic life of the Amazon was a large chunk of the inside tanks and rather interesting. A sampling of what can be seen there from the aquarium site:

  • Witness the intensity of an electric eel’s electric discharge as it is measured by a voltage meter
  • Examine the 10 inch goliath bird-eating tarantula
  • Play with an interactive sound kiosk to hear real sounds made by the Amazonian wildlife
  • Take an up-close look at the amazing colors of poison dart frogs
  • Watch bats flying, roosting and feeding in the bat cave
  • See lizards, iguanas, neon tetras, vampire tetras, stingrays and many more intriguing rainforest species
  • mq33i.jpg
    Fortunately, Damian is at an age where his papa can just make-up the type of fish he’s so excited about. “Ah yes, that’s the Amazonian Bubbers Fish.”

    There are definitely some cool exhibits in there, notably the poison dart frogs and some sort of lamprey or eel that I just couldn’t get a decent picture of. And of course, they had a nice big tank full of…

    Dunh-dunh-dunnnnnnnnh! Pirahnas!

    We mosied on over to the garden area and – garden area? Why yes, the sea anemone garden. It was rather huge and full of vibrantly colored cnidarians as well as some Asteroidea thrown in. It was all rather cool… as cool as Mr. Cool, Damian himself, is.


    An announcement alerted us to the fact that the live Sea Lion show was starting elsewhere, so we tried to take some pictures of the glowing jellyfish, but they were garbage. This portion of the aquarium was great, and I only wish we spent some more time there staring at the wonders of the deep.

    mq33n.jpgThe arena for the live shows is cavernous, but every seat is good. The show is very short – about 12 minutes maybe, but pretty fun. Various seals and sea lions do what you’d expect them to do at such shows; swim around fast, balance stuff, clap, yelp on command, and slide around the concrete. They did display some aptitude at shape sorting, but I’d be curious if I were to randomly select which order to put stuff in, would they be as successful?

    That was fun. Back out to the the aquarium proper and the best thing about the aquarium – for us, anyway. Lots and lots of the tanks of the prettier fish extend down very low. Low enough for our rather short child to feel big while looking at the fish. And really, if you’ve read this far you’ve probably been to a bunch of aquariums already – and those of you who haven’t, well, you’re only here to see pictures of Damian being cute. So here you are:



    Satisfied? Good… but there are more! But first, let’s learn a little about the lobster exhibit; “The New England Lobster Legacy exhibit looks at the local lobster industry and traces the lobster’s rise from “trash-fish” to high priced delicacy. The exhibit also provides an inside look at the tools of the lobster trade, showing guests how a lobster trap works, historic buoys found in our area, and how to determine a “keeper” from a “throw back.” Best of all, the custom-made lobster tank on display provides an underwater look for visitors at a trap filled with live lobsters!”


    It’s funny… on a trip to Ikea (followed by lunching on the greatest pizza in the Universe a couple months after this trip, Damian demanded we buy him an orange crab seat cushion thing that doubles as a stuffed animal. He loooooooved that thing (for a couple months) and every picture of a crab and crab bathtoy and crab this and crab that – he just loved like crazy. I point to this experience as the nascent days of his crabby-love:


    He only looks sore because we took the live crab away from him. Trust me. Turtles and crabs, crabs and turtles, that’s all he needs. Well, that… and giant African millipedes:


    (I don’t know why they have them here, but I thought it was cool.) It also signaled the end of the “aquarium” portion of the aquarium. That left the “Institute” part. Damian was hungry and needed a diaper change, so Hoang and I agreed that she’d deal with that while I ripped through the museum. I can report that it’s very nice, if a bit too random.

    mq33x.jpgThere’s this: “This fascinating exhibit, which marks Dr. Robert Ballard’s historic return to the legendary wreck he discovered in 1985, tells the story of the discovery of Titanic as it’s never been told before! This fascinating exhibit accompanies Dr. Ballard’s first return to Titanic since 1986. See footage from the mission to the Titanic wreck site in our Titanic Theater. It’s a rare chance to get an up-close view of the fascinating world of marine archeology in action, and also to see what all those years under the Atlantic have done to this magnificent ship.”

    And this: “Mystic Aquarium & Institute for Exploration features a replica of an ancient shipwreck as it was found on the floor of the Black Sea, video projections of two important deep-sea archaeological expeditions, ancient artifacts collected from the Mediterranean and a “talking amphora” illustrating ancient Phoenician culture.”

    mq33u.jpg“The Institute for Exploration (IFE) is a leader in uniting deep submergence technology with leading edge deep-sea archaeological techniques. By designing and developing robotic and remotely operated vehicles capable of carrying out archaeological and geological investigations at deep-water sites, we are making first-ever discoveries in human and earth history.”

    mq33w.jpgAnd this: “Challenge of the Deep presents interactive displays, artifacts and findings from IFE’s most recent expeditions off the continental shelf of the Eastern United States, in the Mediterranean, in the Black Sea, and beyond, where Dr. Ballard and his team are pioneering archaeology in deep-water environments. Look for our newest exhibit “Tools of Deep Sea Exploration” featuring the ROV Little Hercules . This exhibit also includes an antique Mark V Dive Suit and Helmet on loan to us from the Connecticut River Museum (CTMQ visits here. Todd Gregory, Institute for Exploration’s Marine Engineer, gives a video tour of both Argus and big Hercules.”

    And most randomly, there was an expansive display of JFK’s PT Boat experiences and related items. I don’t know why, but crowds were gathered, so I guess it’s important to some.

    Yes, there were more tanks than I have pictures of and yes they have a few sharks and some rather interesting displays. But it’s undeniably small and the multiple closed exhibits sort of took away some of the luster for us. I’m sure it’s much better in the summer, so I’d definitely still recommend it – and the Seaport down the road – for a nice family weekend. You can even do what we did and take a ride on the Essex Steam Train on the same day.



    Back to Top

    Cost: $22.00 adults, $17.00 kids 3-17
    Hours: Pretty much every day but Christmas, see website below
    Food & Drink? Sushi! (They have an on-premises restaurant too)
    Children? oh yeah!
    You’ll like it if: Everyone ultimately likes it
    You won’t like it if: You are destitute
    Freebies: Touches from sea life


    For the Curious:
    Museum website
    Beluga whales
    Pribilof Islands
    The “I like turtles” kid, explained
    JFK’s Naval service

    4 responses to “33. Mystic Aquarium”

    1. Chris says:

      I have to say I am surprised and disappointed with your report this time.
      One must agree that Mystic is a smaller aquarium (though not the smallest I have ever been to.) And it is not necessarily a great place for the “Grown-Ups” to spend a day, but with a little one leading the way with excitement and wonder running from tank to tank yelling, ‘eish, eish” it is a great family place.
      We have a membership and go often, (only a 20 min drive for me) and always have a great time! With the warmer weather it is even more fun when it becomes a day trip with a visit to the village which you can walk to from the same parking lot, to the Seaport down the road and also to the downtown shops.

      A hint with the pictures of the tanks, keep the flash off and extend the exposer and pictures come out better.


    2. Catherine says:

      well I hadn’t seen Damian in a while so it was a treat for me-he’s a cutey pie!! oh and the article wasn’t so bad either!!

    3. Tim says:

      I cannot agree enough about the unfortunate letdown I experienced just today at the Mystic Aquarium. It was a lovely sunny April day today about 60°F but it couldn’t stop the cloud of resentment I felt for having been fed a bunch of hooey about how great this aquarium is over the years… Maybe my expectations were just too high…maybe not. I have seen many far better aquariums (New Orleans, Monterey) come quickly to mind. I will say that we didn’t see everything, for instance we didn’t attend the areas such as the Challenges of the Deep or movie theater. It must be said that this is a small aquarium. I will give them credit that I think the most beautiful outdoor exhibit space is the new Alaskan coast area (with the lovely rocky pacific coast feel and terrific ways of viewing the belugas from the rocky beach, to small bubble windows to the larger main viewing windows. But that’s a lot of space to watch two whales swim in a circle. Overall the other exhibit spaces are rather small and lack significant numbers of interesting species for my taste. I will also mention that the largest central indoor tank with the two lovely large green morays was the only other real highlight for me,.. but still that just isn’t enough somehow.. esp at $22 per head- thanks goodness

    4. anna says:

      i got to learn all new sort of stuff about the creatures. i got to pet animals and really enjoed myself.i hope to come in the future.the white whales were beautiful there were full of joy it made me feel like they were being treated well. i loved it!!!!!

    Leave a Comment

    The Out Campaign: Scarlet Letter of Atheism