By Lawrence Specker | firstname.lastname@example.org
Updated Sep 03, 2020; Posted Sep 03, 2020
The newly opened Mississippi Aquarium packs more than 200 species into its exhibits, but what stands out isn’t the sheer variety of its inhabitants. It’s the way it puts visitors among them.
Boasting more than a million gallons of fresh and salt water, it isn’t among the world’s largest. (The Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta, which is, has more than 10 million gallons.) But an engaging design means the central Gulf Coast’s newest attraction makes the most of every drop.
Entering the main building on the campus overlooking the beach in Gulfport, visitors take softly lighted escalators up to the third floor where they’re soon overlooking the top of the main saltwater habitant, the surface gently stirred by large rays and other creatures that have risen from the depths below. Around its rim, separated by clear partitions, are shallow touch tanks full of crabs, anemones, juvenile rays, sea urchins and other creatures of exotic appearance and texture.
Before plunging hands into the tanks, visitors are directed to handwashing stations. These seem like commonplace features of the COVID-19 era, but here the shoe is on the other fin: Washing protects the sea creatures from their visitors, making sure that traces of hand sanitizer (among other contaminants) aren’t shed into the waters they inhabit.
From this level a ramp spirals down and around, giving visitors their first look at the “swirl tank,” a massive cylinder in which finger-size pilchards swim in slow perpetual circular motion, interrupted only by a few slightly larger fish moving the opposite way. There’s a fascination to it that feels akin to watching a 30-foot-tall lava lamp. Kurt Allen, the president and CEO of the Mississippi aquarium, said there are about 10,000 fish in the swirl tank.
The path continues down and around to a transparent midlevel tunnel that takes visitors straight through the tank. Viewing tunnels are common at aquariums, but they’re usually ground-floor features. This one allows fish to swim under onlookers as well as beside and over them, increasing the feeling that one is in the middle of the motion. Looking up, visitors can see windows into the touch tanks they passed earlier, with the action there reflecting off the surface. Looking down, they can get a glimpse of the grottoes and galleries they’ll be looking up from later.
This tunnel also offers them the chance to see some of the aquarium’s emerging rock stars. Sharks, rays and smaller fish are on continuous display as they soar, swoop and glide past onlookers. Grouper draw less attention to themselves as they lurk in the depths, but they don’t exactly hide. A green moray eel does, and even when it isn’t concealed, it positions itself to mimic outcroppings of coral.
And then there’s Banner, a green sea turtle who was a late addition to the roster. He has a reputation for dropping completely out of sight when he’s resting. But when he’s not napping, he maneuvers through his aquatic world with the grace of a soaring bird.
Allen said getting Banner was a lucky break. He was found four years ago in Brevard County, Fla., after being hit by a boat propeller. He was offered to the Mississippi Aquarium by the Florida Aquarium, and Allen was glad to accept him. But injured turtles sometimes lose the ability to regulate their buoyancy, and there was a chance Banner would be “a floater.” That hasn’t proven to be the case. (If you look closely, you can still see scars on Banner’s shell.)
The path downward gives another look at the swirl tank and brings visitors to the main gallery, to a window the size of a movie screen that offers a panoramic look up into the habitat. It’s a dark, cool, tranquil space, and the laughter and excitement of children than can be heard continuously in the building don’t detract at all from the sense of calm.
It’s just peaceful,” said Allen. “Even with kids getting excited, it’s still peaceful watching the animals glide past and do what they do.”
Operators are hopeful the aquarium will soon establish itself as a major regional tourist draw, and the expectation seems realistic.
“I couldn’t tell you how many people I’ve talked to from Mobile, from Louisiana, from the Jackson area,” said Allen. A three-hour radius seems to be the sweet zone he said. At a little over an hour’s drive away, a straight shot along I-10, Mobile is well within the area.
The aquarium opened Aug. 29, the 15th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina’s landfall. Another storm, Laura, prevented a soft opening planned for the week before, and contributed to a delay in bringing in the dolphins that will inhabit an outdoor exhibit.
Built at a cost approaching $100 million, the Mississippi Aquarium has been hailed by some as a monument to post-Katrina recovery. Allen said that designers put an emphasis on quality. “We wanted to bring a first-class attraction to the coast,” he said. “People here deserve the best. They haven’t always gotten it. It’s been a rough 15 years.”
The aquarium’s extensive outside areas include a freshwater river that supports the institutional theme of “from brown to blue and beyond.” It’s not just about exotics such as Banner. It’s about the rivers that flow into the Gulf and the estuaries that connect them. “We want to tell the stories of what that really means,” Allen said.
Outside attractions include crocodiles, alligators, otters, freshwater fish and an aviary full of exotic birds.
The aquarium still has some growth ahead of it. Aside from the dolphins, another new feature going into operation later this year is called “Sea Trek.” It’ll give patrons the opportunity to change into their swimsuits, don special helmets, and view the tank from inside. It won’t be a free-swimming SCUBA experience, Allen said, because participants will do their viewing from a protected ledge. “it’s going to be really cool,” he said.
Regular adult admission is $29.95 for adults, $24.95 for children ages 3-12 and free for those age 2 and under. Seniors get a 10 percent discount. In order to avert crowding, patrons can specify a date and time of entry when purchasing tickets online.
For full information, visit www.msaquarium.org.