For adults, there’s something satisfyingly primal about visiting Riverhead’s Long Island Aquarium and Exhibition Center. Maybe that’s because all life began in the ocean, and visiting the Aquarium is like going back to our watery roots. Or maybe it’s because looking at colorful fish swimming about in tanks reawakens our childhood fascinations with bright colors and underwater worlds. Whatever the cause, the effect is a sort of calm, gratified awe at the beauty of marine life.
Unless, of course, you’re celebrating Shark Week (any week of the year!) with a dive into the aquarium’s shark tank.
For kids who aren’t as big of thrill seekers, the Aquarium is a wonderland where all of the fantastical fish they usually only see in pictures suddenly come to life. Among the exotic sights are seahorses, pufferfish, cowfish, stingrays and, of course, sharks. From very small fish in nicely illuminated tanks to collections of larger fish in open pools. From smiling moray eels to darkly ominous piranhas. The displays are accompanied by simple background information about each type of fish. Other child-friendly features include exploration tunnels that allow kids to get closer to the fascinating creatures.
Kids and adults alike are sure to be dazzled by the Aquarium’s living coral reef, which is the largest of its kind in the Western hemisphere. A kaleidoscopic display of corals combined with anemones, sea cucumbers, tangs and approximately 800 types of fish, the coral reef is a complete ecosystem and a feast for the eyes. Once the personal project of Aquarium co-founder Joe Yaiullo, the coral reef, with its delicate balance of creatures and exacting environmental needs, is the single most labor-intensive and expensive exhibit for the Aquarium to maintain. But it is also an important tool for researching how coral reefs function.
Along with all of the exclusively underwater life to be seen, Long Island Aquarium and Exhibition Center teems with other marine-related species. There’s the pond full of seals that greets you upon arrival in front of the Aquarium. There are the piles of alligators basking under the glow of heat lamps, and there’s the bunch of friendly turtles in a sort of grotto near the entrance. You can even buy turtle food to feed the turtles, and the turtles aren’t shy about coming up and hitting you up for a little snack.
Then there’s the sea lion show. Three times daily (four times on weekends and holidays), visitors are invited to gather outside in the Sea Lion Coliseum to watch the trained California sea lions do tricks. During a recent show, Java, the Aquarium’s 13-year-old male California sea lion, held a group of children and adults spellbound with his skills: waving, shaking flippers, kissing, dancing—encouraged by regular mouthfuls of tasty fish supplied by his trainer Meghan. Java’s most impressive feats, which he saved for last, included a high dive and a high jump.
Staying outside, the wonders continue. African penguins waddle on a rocky wall and occasionally take a dip in their own pond. Several times a day, visitors can watch the penguins get fed and can listen to a short talk about them. Around the corner, a pair of river otters makes their home. Then, diverging further from marine life, there’s the collection of Japanese snow monkeys who frolic in what the Aquarium calls the Lost Temple of Atlantis. It’s hard to imagine getting tired of watching these endearing guys climbing around and playing. Also, in the event that a child is unhappy or scared by the other animals, these monkeys could prove a great distraction.
Long Island Aquarium and Exhibition Center is flowing over with activities for all ages, including summer adventure camps, adventure days, pirate snorkel adventures and, of course, the death-defying shark dive.
For more information and tickets, visit the Long Island Aquarium and Exhibition Center at longislandaquarium.com.