Mystic Aquarium and Institute for Exploration in Mystic, CT, is celebrating its 35th anniversary this month. It is the perfect place for an inter-generational experience of great meaning and fun for grandparent, parents, and children alike. Arrive by opening time and first make note of the schedule for the day and plan what you want to see, so you can be at the right place at the appointed time for each event. There is so much going on at Mystic Aquarium it is impossible to see and do it all in one day, but you can get your hand stamped for re-entry the following day at no extra cost. (Be aware that sun lotion or hand cream might remove this stamp!) The Aquarium is open daily from 9 a.m. – 5 p.m., except Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day. If you plan ahead and pay an extra fee, you can have the opportunities of a lifetime: An up-close penguin experience (booked months in advance), interacting on a very personal level with a beluga whale, and hand-feeding stingrays. If your budget allows any of these, by all means go for it. You and your children will never forget these amazing experiences.
Our first stop was to see the black-foot penguins being fed, since we registered too late to get close to one. These adorable little mammals in their tuxedos fascinate everyone. Their habitat at the Aquarium resembles their natural one and the tribe thrives in this happy environment. You cannot help but smile at them, and the kids always love watching them. Anyone who has seen “March of the Penguins” film can fully appreciate a penguin’s life story and will find these little ones in captivity to be the lucky ones! ( If you have not seen this movie, by all means rent it!)
Next we watched the california stellar sea lions being checked for the day. Animals in Mystic Aquarium are fun to watch as they perform what appear to be tricks. However, each of these “tricks” is a natural movement of the species, which the animals have been taught to perform on command to receive a reward. But the scientists and animal trainers use these special movements to check each part of the animal to be sure it is healthy. To receive a tasty fish, the huge sea lions would slide out of the water onto the specified area, never suspecting they were being weighed.
They showed us many other skills; we watched as the youngest one was learning to respond to the commands and did very well. Before arriving few grandparents, parents, or children could distinguish a seal from a sea lion, but we learned that seals on land pull themselves along with only their front flippers while sea lions can use all four flippers to ambulate. But the more easily visible difference is that sea lions have ear flaps that we can see, instead of just little openings, as seals do.
Beluga Whale Encounter
Next we moved excitedly to the most important event of our day! The Beluga Whale Encounter! Our men donned insulated wader boot pants and shed all jewelry and did a thorough hand scrub, then received instructions about approaching and touching the whales. In Russia, a natural habitat for this species, these whales were given the name “Beluga,” which means “white whale.” These are not baleen whales but have teeth, which are not used to chew but only to catch their prey.
They swallow the fish whole, so the teeth do not pose danger to the handlers. Belugas are arctic mammals, so the water temperature in their large pool at Mystic Aquarium is kept at 55 degrees. Two females, Kela and Naku, have lived here at Mystic quite happily for several years, and now one male, Kela, is here on loan. Everyone hopes to begin a breeding program for the whales. Animals at this Aquarium are either born here or rescued when endangered in the wild. The gestation period is 14 months and the infant whale is born live and nurses its mother for many months. When grown the whales are from 11 to 14 feet long and weigh up to about 3,500 pounds.
Entering the water to about waist deep, the people having the Beluga Encounter wait while the trainer calls a whale and give instructions both to the people and to the whale, rewarding the latter with pieces of fish frequently. Even if you are not one in the water for the encounter, this is a thrilling time to watch from the side of the pool. You can see through the glass wall the other belugas swim close to you while you watch each participant get to stroke and feed a whale.
The whale will respond to a hand movement up and down by nodding her head the same ways. The whales seem to have a specific set of sounds which they loudly make at various times during the encounter, and we were sure they were “talking” to the participants. Sometimes, with their adorable “smiles” we were sure they were playfully teasing or with certain squeaks were saying, “thanks.” In response to hand commands the participants were taught to give, the beluga would roll over for her tummy rub or onto her side with her flipper held high. All the while the trainer was adeptly checking the whale for any skin abrasions or other problems. They are also weighed weekly, to be sure they remain healthy. (I wonder if they ever have to go on Weight Watchers!)
Several times the whale was told to do a deep dive and return or to dive and leave, allowing another whale to come for her encounter. The most amazing part to watch was the very special way the whale enjoys being rewarded with a stroking pat…on her TONGUE!
The most special time for each participant was when the whale rose straight up from the water and remained partially upright for a hug around her neck. Unforgetable in every way! When the whale said good-bye, it was a fluke wave! We came away feeling that these huge animals loved the experience of being close as much as we did! Amazing!!! The official photographer for Mystic recorded all the important parts of the experience and gave each participant two photos and the opportunity to purchase more. What a keepsake!
After a good hamburger at the Mermaid’s Café, we got to feed the cow-nose stingrays. These little creatures are about 15 inches across their wing span, with eyes on top and mouth beneath. They have gills, and their broad “smile” is part of that system and also helps them get rid of the crustacean part of their diet when they eat lobsters or shrimp from the ocean bottom in the wild.
Stingray Feeding Experience
For the Stingray Feeding Experience the stingray area is closed to everyone except the trainers and the Stingray Feeding participants. Again we removed hand jewelry and cleaned hands thoroughly. We were each given a fish to hold in a flat palm and place it under the water. A stingray would swim across our hand and stop to gobble up the fish. The rays have no teeth but a sort of roughened mouth part that feels tickly, and the soft underbelly of the animals feel so soothingly soft. It was a wonderful experience, and we got to give more and more fish until each ray had eaten its fill and stopped coming to the feeding station. What a thrill!
The Aquarium Tanks
Next we spent several hours in the inside aquarium, where we saw tank after tank of fascinating ocean life and river life. The signs are quite informative. There are so many different species represented in huge tanks. Children can come face to face with a shark through the large glass, or say hello to the scary looking iguana. Although this is not a huge aquarium, if you read all the information and look carefully at each tank you could spend days here. We were particularly fascinated with the iridescent species.
At the Nature’s Purse exhibit several gestating mothers of different species had part of their outer surface removed and replaced by a plastic film so we could observe the living, growing embryo. All ages are enthralled with this incredible display. And the mother and baby are not endangered by this.
Challenge of the Deep
Kids don’t seem to mind standing in the very long line to have the experience of the Deep Sea 3-D, a simulated, 8 minute motion ride that they find quite exciting. We opted to skip the nearly one hour wait in line and continue for the rest of the afternoon in The Challenge of the Deep, which is the area of Institute for Exploration by Dr. Robert Ballard, who invented the Remotely Operated Vehicle, ROV, now used for most under-sea exploration of shipwrecks and examination of deep sea life.
These vehicle robots can submerge far deeper than humans and can remain at these dark depths for days or weeks. They are guided and monitored from remote locations for discoveries and collections around the world. When Dr. Ballard’s team is working you can view their discoveries in real time at the Challenge of the Deep, which has displays of many of their findings. The Titanic was discovered by using the ROV, after others searched in vain for 73 years. ROV also located JFK’s World War II sunken PT boat and made outstanding discoveries in many places in the world, including shipwrecks in the Great Lakes and the volcanic ruins around Santorini, Greece. We were disappointed that Dr. Ballard was not conducting an undersea search that we could watch in real time while we were there, but there were plenty of video footages of his earlier finds.
All too soon our time at Mystic Aquarium came to a close. But we will be back we hope!