Perched on the edge of Ybor Channel in Tampa, the Florida Aquarium is a multilevel testament to the aquatic wonders of this state. Inside, I began my exploration in a recreated mangrove forest where the waters beneath the trees took center stage. Although the displays are inside the building, the experience feels outdoors, complete with ducks paddling on the surface of the water and a range of creatures beneath. There were alligators, otters, bluegills, snapping turtles, snook, sheepshead and the biggest redfish I’d ever seen. I had a sudden, primal urge to reach out and run my hand down its side. The fish was so close, so big, so vibrant, how could I not want to connect to that piece of wildlife?
Just as I was having this thought, I came upon a sign staked beside the tank.
“Please keep hands out of the water,” the sign said. “Animals poop in it.”
OK, so maybe no touching the redfish.
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From the estuarine habitats of Florida’s coastline, I moved beneath the surface to the coral reef exhibits, where there were more wonders—goliath grouper and blue-scaled parrotfish, grunts, hogfish, tarpon, sharks, barracuda and a sea turtle the size of a coffee table. Past bobbing seahorses and an open-mouth moray eel, I found myself in a large room with one wall made of glass and rows of seating where tired parents could rest. Ambient music played in watery whale tones, and the lights were dimmed. In the darkened room everyone sat facing the tank, taking it in.
Barracuda cruised past sand sharks longer than I am tall. Jacks, angelfish, tarpon. A stingray pressed against the glass, its mouth working. A man lifted his baby to his shoulders and pointed, and a little boy posing for a photo fidgeted and danced out of the frame. The music played so loud that my chest thrummed, and I imagined it was the soundtrack for the bottom of the sea.
I could have stayed in that spot all day, but there was more to see—tanks of moon jellies moving with the currents, waving bands of sea snakes with their backsides stuck in the sand, a touch tank filled with anemones begging to be poked. I sidled up to the tank, but the aquarium employee working the station shook his head and pointed at a sign that said, “Touch tank is closed. But we’ll reopen soon.”
I sighed. I was starting to think I’d never get my hands on an underwater creature. But then, on the other side of the touch tank, I came upon Stingray Bay, a large open tank where stingrays swam. The air smelled like the beach at low tide. People had gathered at the edges, leaning over, their hands plunged into the water. I glanced to my left and right. A spot opened up and I sidled in, pushed up one sleeve and stuck my hand in the water. The first few rays swam past, just out of reach, before a pale stingray with a wingspan as wide as my shoulders cruised close. I reached, ran my fingers down one wing and experienced the electric thrill that comes from touching wild creatures.
To think all this—the stingrays and the sharks, the sea turtles and the parrotfish, the redfish and the grouper—are there, just off our coast, swimming beneath the surface. It’s hard to imagine from the shoreline or leaning over the prow of a boat, but it’s there all the same. The Florida Aquarium makes it possible to get close to it, to see that other world, and—if you’re lucky—even to reach out and touch it.
If you go …
The Florida Aquarium (701 Channelside Drive, Tampa; flaquarium.org) is open daily from 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Plan 2 hours for the exhibits, plus more if you want to eat lunch there or spend time on the playground.
Café Ray at the aquarium offers a surprisingly diverse menu. There are kid-friendly options like hamburgers and hotdogs, healthier choices like a salad bar and a hot station where international dishes are cooked to-order. The café also has beer and wine.
The aquarium offers a handful of visit extras, like swimming with sharks and behind-the-scenes tours. Make sure to consider all of the options before you go, in case one of the extras grabs your attention. But even if you don’t elect for one of those, the aquarium has more than enough to satisfy.