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The Florida Aquarium, Tampa
Tampa is just a short distance from our villa so we often spend a day there – it is near enough to drive down and back in one day, and not only has some lovely malls, but one of our favourite attractions is the Florida Aquarium.
We like to get up early in order to spend as much time as we can in the Tampa area. The Aquarium is quite easy to find, as it is near the end of the Interstate 4, at the South interchange with Highway 275. You will need to exit at Junction 45A (Jefferson St) which leads you onto Orange St. Continue down Orange St which becomes Pierce St, and take a left onto Twiggs. Then turn right onto Channelside Drive and you will see the Aquarium on your left.
The building itself is quite stunning with its huge spectacular curved glass roof, through which light pours. It has 200,000 sq ft of air conditioned exhibitions inside its dome, and there are 10,000 aquatic plants and animals, not just from Florida. It is within this dome that you start your tour with the Wetlands exhibition area. We love the playful otters who inhabit Florida’s wetlands, but there are freshwater fish and free-flying birds as well as alligators to be seen, including white ibis, spoonbills and blue herons.
The next exhibition area is really fascinating, called ‘Invaders’ it shows you some of the 20 imported species to Florida that have got out of control, and which are becoming quite a problem. Whilst some things such as oranges, cows and bees have caused no problems, and in the case of oranges have become an important part of Florida’s economy, Florida has such a wonderful climate that many invasive species have flourished which have caused difficulties. Most of us know about termites, but it is fascinating to see such creatures as walking catfish and swamp eels. Walking catfish are quite incredible. Originally from south east Asia, when their habitats dry up they simply walk on their fins to another pond. Giant Pond toads arrived in 1955 at Miami Airport in a shipment, and were accidentally released by an importer.
For me, my favourite creatures have to be the Australian sea dragons which you can find in an exhibition called ‘Dragons Down Under.’ These delightful creatures are related to sea horses, but are quite unique to look at – they have little snouts, and can only be described as leafy. They have what looks like wafting leafy branches coming out from their bodies, and you have to look really closely to see their heads, snouts and bodies – quite amazing.
Coral reefs feature heavily in this aquarium, as would be expected – after all, the Florida Keys are home to vast areas of coral reef. Here you descend down into tunnels, reefs and caves and finally find yourself in front of a coral reef teeming with fish and even sharks.
The ‘No Bone’ area concentrates on invertebrates, creatures with no backbone, and here there is a 600 gallon ‘touch tank’ where children can reach in and touch various creatures such as crabs, molluscs and sea stars. Don’t forget to look out for the Giant Pacific octopus. It is the stuff of oceanic nightmares with its 12ft tentacles and over 2,000 suckers!
If you want to get even closer to these amazing sea creatures there is the ‘Swim with Fishes’ encounter. Although it costs extra, it does enable children aged 6 years or over to swim in a huge tank, with a floatation device to keep them on the surface. In this way they can look down on the coral reef which is teeming with marine life. The cost is $75 per person. For those more experienced in scuba diving there is also the ‘Dive With Sharks’ programme, which costs $150 – although you do have to be a certified SCUBA diver, aged 15 or older. I have to admit that swimming with sharks would not be my first choice!
However, one of the most interesting options is the Eco Tour which leaves from the Aquarium. It is a 64 ft catamaran which can accommodate 49 passengers and which will take you out into Tampa Bay for a dolphin encounter. Tampa Bay is home to over 400 bottle-nose dolphins so this is a great way to see them, and at just under $20 it is good value.
If you have young children they will love the newest attraction, once they have finished looking at all the exhibits. ‘Explore a Shore’ is located outside, and is a 2.2 acre ‘aquatic discovery zone’ for children aged 3-13. Here, children can climb on aquatic animal models, such as turtles, or make discoveries in the interactive areas. There is also a 24 ft pirate ship with water cannons which they can squirt. Water jet sprays are great fun and ideal for cooling the kids down – it’s well worth packing an extra t-shirt and shorts as they will definitely get wet. It’s a great place for letting off steam.
Of course, you may want a snack, and the waterfront Café Ray offers pizzas, sandwiches, salads and grilled items, as well as a range of drinks and snacks. And to finish off you won’t be able to leave without visiting the shop, where you will find all sorts of souvenirs, including books and toys, t-shirts and jewellery, as well as crystal and glass.
It’s difficult to describe all the different exhibits and activities available, but if you are interested in marine life then this is a great place to visit.
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