An immersive adventure in Baltimore’s National Aquarium

It’s not the Caribbean, but Baltimore’s National Aquarium may be the next best thing.

This aquarium lets you get close to marine life — real close. It’s an immersive experience in the truest sense. And today, anyone with the most basic scuba certification can dive into the Aquarium’s main elliptical Atlantic Coral Reef tank. It requires only a couple of hours of instruction through the Guest Diver Program.

Baltimore's National Aquarium Jellyfish
The Jellyfish tank

No need to leave the big city, blow the travel budget for tropical destinations or even go outside. Increasing numbers of public aquariums around the continent are discovering this new wave of low-maintenance natural resource appreciation, affording all of the fun and none of the work. Get wet and be a fish — or just wet your hands in the educational touch tank. After drying off, see all the other waiting critters from the other side of the glass.

Dive into Baltimore’s National Aquarium

Located about an hour from Washington, D.C., in downtown Baltimore’s renowned Inner Harbor waterfront area, this indoor scuba diving trip is a delightfully surreal cure for the winter doldrums.

Channel your inner Jacques Cousteau, without the journey. I exchanged underwater glances with a curious eel — and a wide-eyed child from opposite sides of the massive 335,000-gallon aquarium glass.

A reef tank at Baltimore's National Aquarium
The Caribbean reef tank

The dive comprises leisurely laps around the tank to suit varied tastes. With more than 400 fish representing 50 species in crystal clear sea water, this affordable experience is even more memorable when looking back at the public looking at you. Try that at a zoo with fences. My only complaint was my face mask leaking slightly because I couldn’t keep my grinning cheeks from distorting the pliable, watertight mask seal.

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Sign up in advance for the Aquarium’s monthly dives with their contracted scuba operation. Their no-worries, one-stop-shop approach includes a presentation of diver rules and expectations. Bring wetsuits, gloves, boots (or socks), masks and fins and the staff will provide the rest. This is not only an ideal early learning experience but also an opportunity for an additional specialized certification to boot.

After plopping into the brine off of a secluded entrance platform, curious flippering fish will immediately transform any first-moment apprehension into wonder and excitement. A highlight is kneeling upright in one place and letting a handful of the bottom gravel rain down so fish gather around what they think might be a meal (no, it’s not mean). You will feel like a fish inside your own aquarium.

Shark tank at Baltimore's National Aquarium
Shark tank
There’s more

Even if not there as a guest diver, the Aquarium is a national showpiece you should not miss. For more value, include the plethora of other exhibits totaling 17,000 animals, especially the newest and famous Black Tip Reef Shark tank with huge rays and a wondrous underwater hemispherical observation bubble.

Don’t miss the previously injured, three-footed sea turtle the Aquarium nursed back to health. Another favorite is the eerie jellyfish-only tanks. It is easy to forget they have no brains (as is the case unfortunately for some humans). Others who live for TV’s Shark Week can go for the real thing in Shark Alley, with many species slowly circling visitors inside a 225,000-gallon elliptical tank.

Baltimore's National Aquarium Terrapin
Amazonian Terrapin

Local residents will appreciate the Mountains to the Sea exhibit, depicting the gradual transition of Maryland habitats from the Appalachian stream through tidal marshes to Atlantic Ocean coastal beach. As an aquarium hobbyist, I particularly like the Amazon River Forest exhibit. Why? Because many of the tropical fish in pet shops are small, young versions of the surprisingly familiar behemoths that naturally occur in the famous waterway.

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Wrap things up

Take a break to get off your feet by trying the 4D Immersion theater combining high-definition 3D film with special sensory effects built into the theater seats and environment. Finish off the day with Dolphin Discovery.

A dolphin at Baltimore's National Aquarium
Dolphin Discovery

What is not casually evident is the Aquarium’s primary and under-appreciated mission of world-wide ecosystem and natural resource conservation, public education, and rare species restoration, thanks to the patronage and generous donors.

Afterward, get a bite to eat in nearby up-and-coming Harbor East, or the super historic Fells Point neighborhood (this writer’s home base). But that is another story.

Make it happen

Check out all Aquarium information online and sign up for the Guest Diver Program.

Baltimore.org is the best source for all things Charm City, including things to do, places to stay, and where to dine.

Andrew Der

Der is an environmental consultant and travel journalist specializing in water science, nature, eco-travel, and cultural destinations

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