Belugas in the Mystic

Posted June 05, 2009, at 6:41 p.m.

Few have the time or resources to travel to the distant homes of many of the sea’s creatures. But there is a New England alternative where visitors can view thousands of marine animals.

Located about 350 miles away from central Maine, a six-hour drive give or take, is the world-renowned Mystic Aquarium & Institute for Exploration, located just off I-95 in southeastern Connecticut.

Opened in 1973, the 18-acre site has more than 70 exhibits featuring 425 species and more than 12,000 specimens.

The aquarium is the only one in New England to have beluga whales, three of which live in the aquarium’s Arctic Coast exhibit.

The Pribilof Islands exhibit has six Steller sea lions, the largest of all sea lions; two Northern fur seals and a harbor seal. At the Marine Theater, three California seals, Coco, Surfer and Boomerang, perform in daily shows.

More than 20 African penguins make their home at the Roger Tory Peterson penguin exhibit.

A highlight of the 65,000-square-foot Indoor Exhibit building is the 30,000-gallon Coral Reef exhibit, which offers above- and below-water viewing of more than 500 colorful fish and other tropical species against a backdrop of artificial coral.

That building also houses all of the fish and invertebrate exhibits, divided into exhibits such as Hidden Amazon, Anemone Gardens, Stingray Bay and Shark Lagoon. Also there is “Dig It!: Prehistoric Creatures of the Sea,” a workshop in which children can dig for hundreds of authentic sea fossils.

The aquarium is associated with famed oceanographer and explorer Dr. Robert Ballard, who discovered such sunken landmarks as the R.M.S. Titanic and the World War II German battleship Bismarck. Ballard’s work is highlighted in the Challenge of the Deep building, which also features the Deep Sea 3D theater ride.

The newest exhibit is “Birds of the Outback,” which opened May 2 and runs through Sept. 11. The added-admission exhibit allows visitors to feed seed sticks to a variety of birds from Australia.

Also, during the summer, the aquarium offers its Beluga Encounter program, in which visitors can spend 90 minutes in the water helping to train the beluga whales. The cost for this is $159 per person, which includes admission to the aquarium.

The aquarium’s parent organization, Sea Research Foundation, Inc., is also involved with exploration, education, conservation and animal research at the Connecticut site.

But first and foremost, Mystic Aquarium is a place where children, and adults, can visit marine animals they would be hard-pressed to view in the wild.

For more information, visit www.mysticaquarium.org.

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