If I were an architect, my dream project would be an aquarium. City aquariums can be wondrous places. Case in point: the gee-whiz structure designed by Peter Chermayeff housing the New England Aquarium. In fact, Chermayeff’s innovative maiden effort (he was but 26 at the time) made such a splash that he went on to become the world’s premier aquarium architect, revolutionizing aquarium design.
The New England Aquarium is a stunner, all giddy angles, soaring open spaces, arching bridges, and a huge central fish tank, dramatically lit and viewed from surrounding spiraling ramps. It’s clear that Chermayeff understood what most attracts visitors to aquariums: the feeling of being undersea, right among the swimming sharks, shoals of silvery herring, and pulsating sea anemones. The aquarium is yet another of Boston’s seminal Big Ideas.
Any good aquarium has a dual purpose: to delight and to educate. The exhibit that dominates the ground level of the New England Aquarium, featuring three types of penguins from South Africa, South America, and Australia, does just that. Penguins are everywhere – loudly calling out to one another (who knew penguins were so vocal?), hopping about on the rocks, and diving awkwardly into the water, unexpectedly transformed underwater into sleek black torpedoes. Fascinated, we stood by the rail watching an aquarium caretaker hand-feed a group of golden-crested Rockhopper penguins. They were surprisingly picky eaters.
Proceeding through the aquarium, we viewed tanks representing different aquatic environments – everything from the frigid Puget Sound to the languid warmth of the Amazon River Basin. No doubt setting up such a diversity of marine environments posed hefty technical challenges. One of my favorite displays recreates the effects of crashing waves on a Pacific tidal pool. In time to a mesmerizing ocean-like rhythm, the tentacles of colorful anemones swirled wildly, tossed by artificial waves. Nearby, visitors entered a darkened corridor, stood for a moment adjusting to the darkness, then gasped in surprise at the intermittent flicker of bioluminescent deep-reef fish.
The heart of this aquarium, though, is one of the world’s largest round saltwater tanks, representing a Caribbean coral reef. Visitors walk around outside the four-story artificial reef, viewing its shelves and crevices. Well over a hundred species are present, though the stars of the show are the huge sea turtles and a ferocious-looking (but generally harmless) nurse shark. Luck was with us: it was feeding time. We watched in awe as a massive green moray eel snaked over a diver’s shoulder to gently take food from her hand. Vying for her attention, a balloonfish clownishly begged for (and received) a handout.
The aquarium is open Mon-Tues-Fri 9-6, Wed-Thurs. 9-8, and 9-7 weekends and holidays. In addition to the exhibits, there are whale watching tours, an Imax theatre, a wildlife rehabilitation center, a floating pavilion featuring sea-lion presentations, and an Exploration Center with numerous educational activities. A café with harbor views and a lively gift shop round off the New England Aquarium experience.