The National Aquarium in Baltimore is the crown jewel of the city's Inner Harbor and one of the finest facilities of its kind in the world. More than 1.4 million people visit Baltimore's top attraction every year to see 16,500 specimens in an array of environments and exhibits, all of which are dedicated to environmental education and stewardship.
The aquarium was first conceived of in the mid-1970s by legendary Baltimore Mayor William Donald Schaefer and Commissioner of Housing and Community Development Robert C. Embry. They envisioned an aquarium as a vital component of Baltimore's overall Inner Harbor redevelopment.
In 1976, Baltimore City residents voted for the aquarium on a bond referendum, and groundbreaking took place on August 8, 1978. In November of 1979, the United States Congress voted it a "National" Aquarium.
The grand opening was on August 8, 1981. Mayor Schaefer famously donned a bathing suit and jumped into the seal tank to celebrate.
The first of the Baltimore Aquarium's two buildings opened in 1981 on Pier Three, just as the Inner Harbor's renaissance began. Connected by an enclosed bridge, the Marine Mammal Pavilion on Pier Four, site of the Baltimore Aquarium's dolphin show, debuted in 1990. Then in 2005, the Crystal Pavilion addition to the main building made a grand entrance ... literally. Visitors now enter through doors in a three-story, soaring wall of glass. The 65,400-square-foot addition also houses the Animal Planet Australia: Wild Extremes exhibit.
Planning Your Day
First, you should know that on weekends and particularly when school is not in session, the aquarium can get extremely crowded. If you know and expect this going in, you'll be mentally prepared for the crowds. If at all possible, try and visit the aquarium on a weekday or during the school year.
The Baltimore Aquarium layout promotes a one-way traffic pattern, which works fine if you expect to see everything from start to finish with no breaks. However, if you have lunch plans or tickets to a dolphin show, a little advance planning can ensure you don't miss anything. Allow at least 2 1/2 hours to see the whole place. More Tips
The dolphin show and the 4D Immersion Theater (added in late 2007) are optional experiences. The aquarium offers a tiered ticket structure that allows aquarium admission with or without the dolphin show or the 4D Immersion Theater. Purchase or pick up tickets from the kiosk on Pier Three in front of the main building (the westernmost structure), then enter the main building's doors farthest from the ticket kiosk. Members enter the doors closest to ticketing.
No strollers are allowed in the building, but the aquarium lends carriers free of charge at the Stroller Check near the Members Entrance. Lockers, restrooms, and an information booth are just past the ticket taker. An up escalator leads to the Baltimore Aquarium's largest gift shop, the entrance to the main building's exhibits and another escalator up to the Animal Planet Australia: Wild Extremes. Depending on time constraints, it's probably best to check out the Land Down Under first, since you may not be back this way again.
This exhibit will take most visitors no more than 30 minutes.
Animal Planet Australia: Wild Extremes
The aquarium's newest permanent exhibit depicts a river gorge in the northern region of outback Australia. The earth in this harsh land is deep and rich red, including the soil, the sand, and the rock.
From saltwater crocodiles to birds that can't fly, the animals of the Northern Territory are as diverse as they are plentiful. The landscape shifts from desert plains to waterfalls that reach for the sky. Welcoming, friendly and laid back, the Northern Territory of Australia is a haven for those that want to connect with nature.
The exhibit features more than 50 plants, all indigenous to Australia, a 35-foot waterfall over which 1,000 gallons a minute tumble, 1,800 Australian animals, and 60,000 gallons of fresh water that circulates in the seven Australian-themed exhibits. Set aside about 30 minutes for this exhibit.
The main aquarium is designed so visitors move in one direction along a path illuminated with spot lighting. It's not easy to move ahead or backtrack, so it's best to plan to go through this area without breaks. Allow a minimum of 45 minutes. But depending on the crowds and your pace, it could take much longer.
Main Level: Wings in the Water, a large pool of rays, is the first stop. Frequently divers, doing maintenance or facilitating animal encounters, join the rays in the pool.
Level Two: An escalator leads up to Maryland: Mountains to the Sea, which shows a series of local habitats with creatures ranging from the Maryland's famous blue crab to the more obscure striped burrfish.
Level Three: A moving ramp that crosses over the ray pool and up to level three, where a display of frolicking puffins greet guests. Visitors follow the exhibits along the wall to a revolving door at the base of an escalator.
Level Four: Head up to the sun-filled rainforest exhibit in the glass pyramid that tops the Baltimore Aquarium. Golden lion tamarins and pygmy marmosets play among the treetops, while piranhas swim in an open tank, and a tarantula lives in a glass-enclosed log. Exiting the rainforest, visitors head back down an escalator and are dropped at the top of a spiral ramp.
Open Ocean Exhibit: Surrounded by an open pool of coral reef fish, the ramp coils down through the depths of shark territory. Tiger sharks and hammerheads are among the species circling visitors as they descend to the Aquarium's lowest level. There they get another peek at the ray pool from under the water before exiting up to the lobby.
Marine Mammal Pavilion
An enclosed bridge joins the main building with the Baltimore Aquarium's dolphin show amphitheater. Arrive 15 minutes before your scheduled show time. To stay dry, avoid the "splash zone" seats in the first several rows.