While air bubbles gently rippled past my ears from the scuba tank regulator, I exchanged glances with a curious eel. Wide-eyed children stared at me through the aquarium glass, reminding me I was still in the National Aquarium in Baltimore rather than the Caribbean.
It’s not the Caribbean, but with its teeming sea life, the Aquarium is the next best thing for those who want a touch of the islands, even “under the sea.” I had watched Sea Hunt, which made Lloyd Bridges famous, on TV as a child (quick, do the math); back then diving equipment back then was risky and archaic at best, leaving the experience for only a highly-trained few. Today, anyone with basic scuba certification can do it all in a couple of hours through the Aquarium’s Guest Diver Program, without leaving the big city or blowing the budget. More and more aquariums are discovering this new wave of public appreciation, and Charm City is no exception.
Located in the middle of downtown Baltimore’s renowned Inner Harbor waterfront area, and especially and delightfully surreal in the winter, such a faux scuba diving trip is a sure cure for the winter doldrums. The dive takes place in the elliptical Atlantic Coral Reef tank, where one makes leisurely laps to suit varied tastes. With more than 400 fish representing 50 species in 335,000 gallons of sea water, this affordable experience is even more unique when you look back at the public looking at you through the thick glass. Try that at a zoo with fences.
I don’t know which was more fun, being face to face with a big fish, or smiling at a little girl on the other side of the glass, waving at me as if I were a dolphin. This aspect can also make for an incredibly unique and truly unforgettable family experience if the diver and his own children are able to view each other through the glass, as if they were one of the many exhibits.
The highlight of the dive is standing upright in one place, picking up a handful of the bottom gravel and letting it rain down, so the fish will swarm around what might be a meal. While the Atlantic coral reef is artificial, one would never know, and the best way to describe the feeling is that it is exactly what it might be like to be a fish in your very own aquarium.
To make it happen, sign up in advance for the monthly dives with the Aquarium’s contracted scuba shop, Atlantic Edge, based in Gaithersburg, Maryland. Having had past mediocre scuba shop and guide experiences, I was completely impressed by the all-inclusive, no worries, one-stop-shop approach. After an introductory hour-long presentation of diver rules and expectations, the staff will provide all other equipment and guides, including a clear explanation of what to do, as well as assist the diver to the tank and into and out of the water.
Divers must be at least 18 years old, provide their own wet suits, gloves, boots (or socks), masks and fins. If you are a novice, you might have a bit of anticipation mixed with just a tad of healthy anxiety, but the swarms of harmless wide-eyed fish flippering by will immediately transform anxiety to wonder and excitement. Atlantic Edge makes this a truly low-maintenance and enjoyable experience by removing all the work and leaving the fun. The experience also qualifies a diver for an additional specialized certification.
Whether or not you’re doing the guest diver program, the Aquarium is a showpiece of Baltimore not to be missed in its own right, so make a day out of it while there, and add on the plethora of other exhibits totaling 17,000 animals including the newest and famous open-tank Black Tip Reef Shark exhibit with huge rays. One of my favorite displays is the surreal and eerie jellyfish-only tanks. It is easy to forget they have no brains. Others who live for TV’s Shark Week will appreciate the real thing in Shark Alley, with many species slowly circling visitors inside a 225,000-gallon elliptical tank.
For terrestrial variety, check out the Tropical Rain Forest exhibit of plants, birds, turtles and monkeys on the top level and Animal Planet Australia’s 120 species of crocodiles, turtles, fishes, snakes and lizards. Local Maryland residents will further appreciate the Mountains to the Sea exhibit, which depicts the gradual transition of Maryland habitats from the Appalachian mountain stream through the Atlantic Ocean tidal marsh and coastal beach. As an aquarium hobbyist, I particularly like the Amazon River Forest exhibit. Why, you may ask? It is because many don’t realize that most of the tropical fish in pet shops are small young versions of surprisingly familiar behemoths on exhibit that naturally occur in the Amazon.
A great way to take a break with the kids and get off your feet is to try the 4D Immersion Theater, which combines high-definition 3D film with special sensory effects built into the theater seats and environment. Finish the day off with Dolphin Discovery, which includes dolphin training and play demonstration, and then walk to one of the Inner Harbor’s or Harbor East neighborhood’s premium waterfront eateries for a leisurely meal.
The best one-stop-shop for all needed Aquarium information is www.aqua.org
Learn about the guest diver program www.aqua.org/explore/baltimore/immersion-tours/guest-diver-program
Sign up for the guest diver program www.atlanticedge.com
The best source of other things to do, attractions and places to stay in the area is baltimore.org