The National Aquarium in Baltimore

Author: Shari Horowitz

Take a tour through the National Aquarium, where you can see everything from an Amazonian rainforest to an Australian river gorge—and even a dolphin show!

My Favorite Destination

When I was a kid, the National Aquarium in Baltimore was my favorite destination, and even though I haven’t been there for about 10 years, my recent visit reminded me why I liked it so much.

Hosting 1.6 million visitors annually, the National Aquarium in the beautiful Baltimore Inner Harbor houses 16,000 animals—more than 660 species of fish, birds, amphibians, reptiles, and mammals. The aquarium’s mission ensures that the exhibits and shows include information about conservation and preserving the environment.

Australia’s Northern Territory

Media Relations Manager Jen Bloomer started our tour in the Glass Pavilion, the newest building for the interactive Animal Planet Australia: Wild Extremes exhibit. This depicts a river gorge in northern Australia, complete with 120 Australian-native species.

As we enter we hear a waterfall cascading down a cliff, and birds swoop overhead, as the animals are free to go where they please. The first aquatic display houses barramundi Lates calcarifer, a popular food fish in Australia that can reach sizes of more than 6 feet. They are accompanied by schools of small banded rainbowfish Melanotaenia trifasciata and black-banded rainbowfish Melanotaenia nigrans, both ofwhich top out at about 5 inches. Why is there no predation?

Tanks Separated by Screens

The aquarium’s Curator of Fishes Rich Lerner explains that the five tanks for the exhibit are separated only by screens. One tank houses a large school of rainbowfish, which breed regularly. The babies can swim through the screens and grow up in a different tank. Although small fish are naturally a part of the diet of barramundi, the barramundi are very well fed and there are so many rainbowfish that no noticeable predation occurs in the tank.

Crocks and Turtles

In another exhibit, a freshwater crocodile Crocodylus johnstoni stares down visitors while displaying a toothy grin. The freshie, as it is called in Australia, shares its home with a variety of freshwater turtles, including a snake-necked turtle Chelodina longicollis.


Another tank holds large archerfish Toxotes chatareus—a favorite with children, who love to watch them spit water at crickets and knock them into the water. A spiny-tailed monitor Varanus acanthurus waits above the water.

Wings in the Water

Next we arrive at my favorite exhibit, Wings in the Water. One of the largest collections of stingrays in the country, it includes cownose rays Rhinoptera bonasus, roughtail stingrays Dasyatis centroura, southern stingrays D. americana, and more.

Chelonia mydas

The green sea turtle Chelonia mydas on display, named Calypso, was rescued off Long Island. Severely shocked from the cold, she was taken into rehab, where she developed a secondary infection in her left front flipper.

Learner explains that such infections are not uncommon in cold-shocked turtles. Unfortunately the flipper had to be amputated, and she was transferred to the National Aquarium, since her rescuers were unsure if she would be able to survive in the wild. The aquarium now serves as Calypso’s permanent home, where she actively roams around to the delight of excited visitors.

Stegostoma fasciatum

Another beneficiary of the aquarium’s rescue program is a partially blind zebra shark Stegostoma fasciatum. Volunteer divers enter the exhibit twice daily to feed the animals and conduct a presentation about them, and since the zebra shark has difficulty seeing, it responds to the noises the divers make and approaches to be fed.

Maryland’s Coastline

Moving up an inclinator, essentially an escalator without steps, we arrive at Maryland: Mountains to the Sea. The first tank replicates a typical Alleghany stream. A painted turtle contently basks on a log. In the water are common shiners Luxilus cornutus, greenside darters Etheostoma blennioides, Potomac sculpin Cottus girardi, and rosyside dace Clinostomus funduloides.

In the tidal marsh habitat naked gobies Gobiosoma bosc, sheepshead minnows Cyprinodon variegatus, and skilletfish Gobiesox strumosus are on display. Feather blennies Hypsoblennius hentz enjoy an artificial oyster reef microhabitat where they can lay their eggs.

Next is a coastal beach habitat, with juvenile lookdowns Selene vomer, black bass, striped burrfish Chilomycterus schoepfii, and northern kingfish Menticirrhus saxatilis.

The Atlantic Shelf exhibit features summer flounder Paralichthys dentatus, which occasionally leave the bottom to feed, allowing visitors a close-up view of their unique body shape. The clearnose skate Raja eglanteria is fed without competition by directly delivering its food via a PVC pipe.


Continuing up the inclinator we arrive at the adaptation level. The first tank houses a large number of different species of cichlids and focuses on evolution. A large humphead cichlid Cyphotilapia frontosa with a nuchal hump and blue and white stripes stands in stark contrast to the smaller and drabber lyretail Lamprologus. The sign above the tank reviews the incredibly rapid speciation of the cichlids in lakes Tanganyika and Malawi, and how the different adaptations developed by the cichlids allow them to better compete in their respective niche habitats.

Gars, bowfin, and lake sturgeon inhabit an environment that demonstrates different strategies for becoming a top predator. Gars lie in wait while lake sturgeons stir up the bottom for food, and the bowfin lunges at any small fish that happens to come too close.

More African Fish

Another African-themed display showcases common aquarium fish—kribs Pelvicachromis pulcher, Congo tetras Phenacogrammus interruptus, African knifefish Xenomystus nigri, and African butterflies Pantodon buchholzi. While the butterflies strike at anything moving on the surface, the knifefish use their electric sense to hunt, and the kribs and tetras school and feed together. An electric eel Electrophorus electricus lives alone.

Coral Reef Tank

The coral reef tank (a favorite with the kids, who crowd the glass and shout “Nemo!” at the sight of Amphiprion ocellaris) displays the various ways that organisms move—the laterally compressed copperband butterflyfish Chelmon rostratus contrasts with the box-like cowfish, and of course the clownfish shows the more standard body form.

Octopus Display

An octopus display is used to showcase intelligence. Lerner mentions that all the animals at the aquarium are given enrichment items to elicit natural behaviors. The octopus is offered food items like a Mr. Potato Head toy; the octopus has to remove various parts to get at the food inside.

Other Displays

A different tank is meant to show the lurking behaviors of various fish, including groupers and butterflyfish, by placing them in with a collection of living corals. A rockfish swims in another tank, above which is a presentation on fish migration.

Different Biotopes


Continuing up to level five, we see an enclosure filled with puffins. Although quite similar to penguins, puffins are completely unrelated seabirds that still have the ability to fly. (This exhibit is scheduled for renovation.)

Kelp Forest Tank

A kelp forest tank features various species of sole, rock greenling Hexagrammos lagocephalus, copper rockfish Sebastes caurinus, and Garibaldi Hypsypops rubicundus.

Pacific Coral Reef Tank

Next comes a Pacific coral reef tank filled with Banggai cardinals Pterapogon kauderni, more clownfish, and several tangs including common aquarium specimens like blue tangs Paracanthurus hepatus and naso tangs Naso lituratus.

Amazon Fish

Next Amazon fish common to the hobby are featured—bleeding heart tetras Hyphessobrycon erythrostigma, Ancistrus catfish, and silver dollars Metynnis hypsauchen. They share a huge tank with animals that usually cannot be brought home, such as polka dot river stingrays and Cotinga River side-necked turtles.

Popular Fish

The next tank displays more popular hobby animals such as Heckel and aquarium-strain discus, silver hatchetfish, marbled hatchetfish Carnegiella strigata, cardinal tetras Paracheirodon axelrodi, rummynose tetras, king tiger suckermouth catfish, whiptail cats Farlowella sp., and cory cats Corydoras schwartzi.

Amazonian Rainforest

The warm temperatures, abundant plant life, animals everywhere, and clear glass roof allowing the sunshine into the Amazonian Rainforest exhibit is a welcome change from the rest of the building. We are lucky to be greeted by an adorable golden lion tamarin Leontopithecus rosalia (a small monkey) who poses for our camera. Here also animals are not in cages—the tamarin jumps all over, in some cases only a few feet from people.

Nearly Self-Sufficient

The freedom of the animals also makes the exhibit exceptional from a caretaker’s standpoint—it is almost self-sufficient. The caretakers put some food in the exhibit, clean it regularly, and watch the animals, but that’s about it. We saw a sloth in the exhibit and Bloomer explained that one of the sloths gave birth just over a year ago. Instead of removing the baby and raising it away from its mother, the veterinarians allowed the sloth to raise its child—inside the exhibit—just as she would in the wild.

Amazonian Frogs

Continuing through the rainforest, we come across a tank full of Amazonian frogs. Pygmy marmosets roam through the trees. There are also ponds built into the scenery housing Amazon natives, including immense pacu and piranhas.

No Room

Lerner later notes that although the aquarium receives calls constantly to take in fish that have outgrown hobbyist tanks, the National Aquarium, like most public aquariums, does not have the room to take in all the fish they are offered. It is much better for you and your fish to research before purchasing.

Atlantic Coral Reef and Open Oceans

To return to the main level we walk down a spiral ramp featuring the Atlantic Coral Reef and Open Ocean exhibits.

In the Atlantic Coral Reef exhibit there are impressive-looking queen triggerfish Balistes vetula. Green morays inhabit caves and crevices, with only their mouths appearing as they open and close them constantly. The Atlantic blue tangs Acanthurus coeruleus school as in the wild. Blue-headed wrasses Thalassoma bifasciatum exhibit some of the same cleaning behaviors they do in the wild, although they tend not to in small aquaria.

At the bottom is the ever-popular Open Oceans exhibit, complete with the aquarium’s large shark collection. Imposing-looking sand tiger sharks Carcharias taurus and sandbar sharks Carcharhinus plumbeus patrol the exhibit while the nurse sharks Ginglymostoma cirratum relax on the bottom.

The Dolphin Show

The dolphin show was to start soon, so we quickly move through the shark exhibit, pause for a moment to look at the lionfish tank (talking, of course, about the recent lionfish invasion of the western Atlantic), and move on to find a full house in the Lyn P. Meyerhoff Amphitheater, where the Atlantic bottlenose dolphins are housed in a large pool. There is a new show called “Our Ocean Planet.” Before the show the dolphins peer eagerly at visitors. Bloomer tells us that the dolphins are divided into two groups that rotate for shows.

We got to see the group with the aquarium’s only adult male dolphin, Chinook. Many of the dolphins at the aquarium were born there. Two dolphins in our show are Maya and Spirit, half sisters that were born in the aquarium in 2001. Spirit’s mother, Nani, was also in our show.


Bayley, born just two years ago, was named by a naming contest open to the public—a reference to the Chesapeake Bay, just like her mom’s name, Chesapeake. She is now working with the trainers, and even comes out sometimes during shows.

We’re Not so Different

This new show largely focuses on conservation and understanding the similarities between dolphins and us.

One of the aquarium’s researchers, Diana Reiss, discovered that dolphins can learn to recognize themselves in the mirror. Associated only with a very few highly intelligent animals, such as humans and chimpanzees, mirror self-recognition is associated with behaviors like altruism and empathy.

Of course, while the show addresses conservation issues, the dolphins perform the behaviors they are most famous for, including very impressive jumps.

Aquarium Address and Info

The National Aquarium

501 East Pratt Street, Baltimore, Maryland, 21202

Open: Monday–Thursday: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Friday 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Phone Number: 410-576-3800


I would like to thank Media Relations Manager Jen Bloomer for arranging my visit and Curator of Fishes Rich Lerner for answering all of my questions.

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