Sea creatures are elusive to most of us landlubbers. Even divers and fishermen don't see everything that thrives in vast and mysterious oceans. Tampa Bay is home to some of the world's best places to learn about fish and sea mammals. And you don't even have to get wet. From alien-like jellyfish to huge grouper the size of trucks, Tampa's aquariums are the perfect place to get a glimpse of the planet's wonderful, watery worlds.
The Florida Aquarium
This spectacular marine habitat—The Florida Aquarium—is among the top aquariums on the globe, featuring more than 20,000 aquatic plants and animals from around Florida and the world. The 200,000-square-foot ocean-filled complex features the best of Floridian wildlife from coral reefs and swamps to oceans and bays. Animal interactions are abundant here. Guests can meet and greet African black-footed penguins, dive with sharks and swim with more than 2,300 colorful fish in the Coral Reef exhibit.
Seawater creatures aren't the only ones featured at this aquarium, though. The Wetlands Gallery highlights the wildlife of Florida's streams, marshes, rivers and cypress swamps, too. There, you'll find North American river otters, American alligators, roseate spoonbills, stingrays, red bellied turtles, nurse sharks and more. Whether you're looking for dangerous deep sea predators, playful sea mammals or beautiful water fowl, The Florida Aquarium has something for everyone.
Clearwater Marine Aquarium
For an aquarium geared more toward helping and caring for injured animals, visit the Clearwater Marine Aquarium. This rescue and rehabilitation center is home to Winter, a dolphin who lost her tail and was fitted with a prosthetic fin to help her swim. Her story has inspired disabled children and wounded war veterans alike. The aquarium houses many animals that were sick or injured including dolphins, sea turtles and river otters.
Though the goal of the CMA is to release these animals back into the wild once they're rehabilitated, those too injured to return take up permanent residence and are even given names. Come visit Hope the dolphin, Cooper the otter or Harold the turtle. The aquarium features dolphin shows, shark feedings and a stingray petting zone for up-close encounters with Florida's ocean wildlife.
Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium
With a passion for the ocean, this Sarasota-based world-class marine institution features a public aquarium that supports Florida tourism by playing host to about 350,000 visitors annually, including many international guests.
Open 365 days a year, the Mote Aquarium includes touchable rays and reef-animal exhibits, a 135,000-gallon shark habitat and windodws into working laboratories. Visit star residents like the manatees Hugh and Buffett and the sea turtles Hang Tough, Shelley, Harry and others. General admission tickets includes access to The Aquarium, the Ann and Alfred E. Goldstein Marine Mammal Research and Rehabilitation Center and Immersion Cinema.
Konger Tarpon Springs Aquarium
Built in 1990, the Konger Tarpon Springs Aquarium is a family-run business located in the so-called "Sponge Capital of the World." This aquarium offers a more low-key experience for sea-lovers. It is home to live coral and sponges native to the nearby waters.
The aquarium features a 120,000-gallon tank with more than 30 species of fish, including nurse sharks, bonnet head sharks, snook and tarpon. Watch feedings of the adult alligator and safely pet and feed stingrays, alligators and small sharks. The aquarium has added Puffy's Playground, an indoor playground for kids, to its repertoire of activities. It features a bounce house, ball pit, tunnels, slides and more.
After 26 years the aquarium is poised for expansion, recently purchasing 27 acres of land at the corner of Alternate 19 and Dixie Highway. The new aquarium is expected to open in the spring of 2017 with more outdoor space and hands-on exhibits.