Fishy Adventures in Boston

Is taking a toddler to the New England Aquarium easy? No. But you should do it anyway.

It ain't easy being a mom. You find yourself doing things you never, in your wildest dreams, thought you might one day do—and I don't mean working on your all-over tan on a secluded beach in Fiji. I'm talking more like scraping purple wax crayon munch out of new molars set in the screaming, near-rabid jaws of an 18-month-old.

So, it was par for the course on a recent Friday visit to Boston's New England Aquarium (1 Central Wharf, Boston, 617.973.5200) when I had to pull darling, curious Violet off the side of the iconic Giant Ocean Tank because she was banging on its windows yelling "Open! Open!" That's an official big no-no, but I have to say, I understand her enthusiasm. Who wouldn't want to swim along a Caribbean coral reef and splash around with midnight parrotfish, barracuda and green sea turtles? Thanks to the Aquarium's $18-million-dollar renovation completed this summer, I don't have to fly her thousands of miles to do so. New crystal-clear windows showcase bright views of the four-story, 200,000-gallon tank's hand-painted, interior, tropical Atlantic coral reef environment and 2,000-plus sea creatures living inside. Plus, the Giant Ocean Tank surfaces in the Yawkey Coral Reef Center, where we got to peek over the edge at predators, discover that garden eels aren't something Violet can dig up in the backyard, and learn a little about reef biodiversity.

Giant Ocean Tank

Spiraling to the top of the tank with this shortcake was an exercise in patience and, well, I got some exercise, too. Along the way there’s much to see, because at each level there are tanks and other styles of exhibits. Several different penguin pools cohabitate at the base of the Giant Ocean Tank. Little Blues, Rockhopper and African penguins cozy up together, squawk, swim and play, and gulp down fish at meal time. Special see-through panels allow little ones the best view from their own two feet.

Level 2 offers a peek at groupers and sea dragons, while Level 3 gets more interactive with the Edge of the Sea Tidepool. Violet loved being able to handle sea urchins and hermit crabs, mussels and other animals native to East Coast waters. She even tried eating a few.

NEAq sea lions

Other not-to-miss Aquarium experiences include the Shark & Ray Touch Tank, installed in 2011, and the Marine Mammal Center. Friendly cownose rays and infant bamboo and epaulette sharks gamely swim circles through the saltwater mangrove habitat while kids (and adults!) dangle their hands into the shallow pool hoping to graze the top of one as it scoots by. Violet wasn't scared to go elbow deep, so you shouldn't be either. The exhibit is just to the left after entering the ticketed area. Behind the Giant Ocean Tank sits the Marine Mammal Center, open to the elements and Boston Harbor. Northern fur seals and California sea lions put on a show for passersby, and there are also scheduled training sessions throughout the day. 

Taking a toddler to the New England Aquarium is stimulating, fascinating, poignant, enthralling—and exhausting. Go do it anyway. I loved the Aquarium as a kid, and I want Violet to have incredible experiences here, too. Each night since our visit, after she splashes around in the tub and the water drains away, Violet peers down into the pipe and says, "Nighty night fishes. See ya inthemornin."

Shark & Ray Touch Tank