Story by Dena Temple
Aquarium Tour - our highlight of the day
The entrance to the Mississippi Aquarium features a metal sculpture/fountain of three sails, representing education, conservation and community. We were really looking forward to our visit to the Mississippi Aquarium. Since I was on assignment for the Shoofly Magazine, their media department had arranged a personal tour with a representative of the aquarium. There is free on-street parking available around the aquarium, as well as a multi-level municipal garage adjacent (it was free on the day we went, but there is usually a small fee to park in the garage). Our contact, Corey, instructed us to meet her at the “sails,” and we didn’t know what she meant. The entrance was a quick walk away – and it is adorned with a lovely fountain featuring three large metal sculptures that, come to think of it, DO resemble sails! And there was Corey waiting for us, just as planned. After a warm greeting, she explained that the sails represent the three pillars of the aquarium’s mission: education, conservation and community. She opened the gate and invited us inside.
The much-anticipated opening of the $93 million Mississippi Aquarium took place in late August. “The aquarium complex is 5.8 acres,” Corey explained, “and features more than 200 species of animals in 12 indoor and outdoor exhibits that mimic their native habitats.” She went on to explain that the half-mile footpath that connects the outdoor exhibits are lined with Mississippi native plants, and many of the animals within the facility are also native to Mississippi. Accommodations are made to keep visitors safe during this pandemic. All guests must wear masks on the premises, both inside and out, and social distancing is encouraged. There are also hand-sanitizing stations located around the facility.
The first exhibit area we found contains American Alligators, which may be commonplace to many and scary to some, but I find them fascinating and beautiful. I made a mental note to return for a photo shoot after the tour. Across the path was a similar exhibit containing American Crocodiles, which are native to Florida. “Having these two habitats next to each other gives visitors an opportunity to note the differences between alligators and crocodiles,” explained Corey. Next along the path was a very large river exhibit designed to represent freshwater habitats in northern Mississippi. The path that surrounds this environment winds downward, so visitors can observe the fish from above, those at mid-level, and bottom feeders at the lowest part of the ramp. As natural as this exhibit looks, Corey tells us that the exhibits at the aquarium are not actually stone and coral, but constructed of concrete. It’s amazing! This exhibit is mesmerizing; I could watch the spotted gar, bass, turtles and catfish all day.
Our next stop was the dolphin exhibit, which is still under construction. The dolphins are being housed elsewhere for the time being. After another bend in the path, we arrived at a caged structure housing the aquarium’s aviary. Inside, 23 different species of birds can be seen by eagle-eyed visitors. Most are exotic, like the brilliant Scarlet Ibis we spotted standing in a shallow pond, but several of the birds are native to Mississippi. A docent within the structure provides information to more curious visitors. Just beyond the aviary is a green space. “In the future,” Corey explained, “this area may be used for special events and craft shows.” They may also allow senior citizens to use their walking path as an exercise space in the future. Next we came to the Pelican Pointe Café, which had just opened, featuring nachos, burgers, salads, grilled cheese and Pop Brothers artisan ice pops – a nice place to sit for a few minutes before entering the main attraction, the indoor “Aquatic Wonders” exhibit. Pelican Point Cafe is situated in the perfect location to allow a brief rest and a quick snack before visiting the Aquatic Wonders indoor exhibit. The enormous building has no windows and is decorated on the outside with metal panels in a fish-scale pattern and tasteful silhouettes of the aquatic residents inside. The subdued design heightens the anticipation of what’s to come. We entered the exhibit and immediately were led to a three-story escalator bathed in blue light. The exhibit, Corey explained, is meant to be viewed from the top, down. We soon understood what she meant. As we ascended, videos of fish were projected onto the blue walls all around us – it’s a very effective preview of what’s to come. Once we reached the top, we entered the main viewing room. The main tank in the Aquatic Wonders building fills the three-story structure nearly wall to wall. On the top level you can view the marine life from above, and small touch tanks along one side allow a personal introduction to some of the crabs, rays, anemones and starfish that call the aquarium home. A second touch tank allows interaction with small sharks and rays. Colorful fish and sharks of all sizes swim by, oblivious to the hordes of fascinated visitors around them. A gradually descending walkway circles the tank, and acrylic observation windows along the way allow views of nearly all areas of the habitat: a coral reef housing a Moray eel; or a rock outcropping where a goliath grouper hangs out. About midway down the path, a suspended acrylic tube allows guests to walk through the tank itself, eight feet underwater! Having a cownose ray or a nurse shark swim over your head is an experience not to be missed. “It’s the only 360-degree observation tunnel in the country,” Corey explained. “Some have tunnels on the ground level, but none where water surrounds you.” In an adjacent room is a three-story-high, tubular tank featuring a “bait ball,” a large school of small baitfish that swim endlessly in unison, first slowly rising together in the water column, then descending, over and over. Watching the fish swimming eternally in circles, flashing silver as the light catches their shiny scales, is absolutely mesmerizing. The descending pathway ends at a vast, ground-level, two-story viewing window. Seeing the marine landscape from this perspective can make one feel rather small. Corey gave us a little insider info on this exhibit. “This window is so large,” she explained, “In order to get it into the building, the roof had to be removed, and a crane dropped it into place!” The acrylic tunnel was installed in the same way, she told us.
The final exhibit is a work in progress. The penguin habitat was also not completed in time for our visit, but the resident penguins are brought to the aquarium daily and set up in a makeshift habitat in an event space building on campus. Here, the African penguins and their handler educate visitors on the lives of penguins and how important it is to protect their environment.
After a quick trip through the gift shop (lots of great tees and toys – Christmas is coming, y’all), we thanked Corey for the wonderful tour and headed out of the gate. Surely, we decided, this will become a major attraction for the Gulf Coast, and we felt very lucky to have gotten an insider’s view.