If you think aquariums consist primarily of fish tanks stacked three-deep along darkened corridors, then you haven't visited one lately. The new Atlantic Coral Reef exhibit that opened on Apr. 7 at the National Aquarium in Baltimore features underwater caves and crevices alive with porcupine fish, wafer-flat lookdowns, and other exotic creatures, all contained in a doughnut-shaped tank with a descending ramp in the center. Chicago's Shedd Aquarium boasts a 3-million-gallon saltwater oceanarium housing beluga whales, Pacific white-sided dolphins, and harbor seals. And the three-year-old river museum in Chattanooga, Tenn., is home to a 65-pound catfish nicknamed Babba, who lives in the 25-foot-deep Nickajack Lake exhibit.
GOOD STORIES. Ever since the Baltimore aquarium, which opened in 1981, started attracting more than 1 million visitors annually, U.S. cities have rushed to expand or build sea or fresh water museums. Some 36 are now operating, and around 20 are planned to open within five years, in places as diverse as Cleveland, Denver, Riverhead, N.Y., and Houston.
New technology has made such marine supershowcases possible. Hardy acrylic windows and elaborate life-support systems allow environmentally sensitive creatures to survive far from their tropical, polar, or river haunts. And novel interactive devices, such as the Flippers, Flukes & Fun exhibit that teaches about whale vocalization at the Monterey Bay (Calif.) Aquarium, engage visitors as never before. "Aquariums now offer quality entertainment-education, with a twist of conservation," says Kathy Cloyd Sher, deputy director in Baltimore.
Some newer sites capitalize on local marine life. The three-year-old Thomas H. Kean New Jersey State Aquarium in Camden displays such Jersey Shore inhabitants as brown sharks, silver dolphin fish, and horseshoe crabs. Chattanooga's facility lets visitors follow the path of the Tennessee River from an Appalachian cove forest to the Mississippi Delta. Rainbow and brook trout course through deep pools and a river in one 55-ft.-long stretch, and a delta panorama features red-bellied turtles and water moccasins. "The Tennessee Aquarium proves that freshwater stories are just as compelling as the saltwater stories," says Daniel Kohl, vice-president of Larson Co., a Tucson-based aquarium designer. He says "traditional lines between zoos, aquariums, and natural science museums are disintegrating."
Indeed, several zoos have diversified into the marine business. On Apr. 1, Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo launched Kingdoms of the Seas, featuring an underwater tunnel that runs through a 900,000-gal. tropical reef system. Designed to mimic the sensation of walking at the bottom of the sea, the exhibit showcases 2,000 species. On May 29, an aquarium at the Columbus Zoo in Powell, Ohio, will open a 100,000-gal. coral reef exhibit that includes simulated rolling ocean waves.
MALL WALK. For-profit operators, inspired by Anheuser-Busch's Sea World parks in Florida and California, also hope to make a big splash. Tarlton Aquastar of Dallas will open two Underwater World exhibits in 1996--in San Francisco and in suburban Minneapolis' huge Mall of America. The attractions will transport visitors on movable walkways through acrylic tunnels teeming with marine life. Admission will be $11 for adults and $5.50 for kids and seniors--on par with municipal-owned aquariums.
Sensitive to environmentalists' concerns, some aquarium developers are emphasizing their humane treatment of animals. The three-year-old Oregon Coast Aquarium in Newport expects to draw thousands to see Keiko, the 7,000-lb. killer whale who starred in the movie Free Willy. Keiko, currently in a cramped enclosure in Mexico City, may find a 2-million-gal. pool more to his liking when he arrives by jet in December. Keiko won't have to jump through hoops to earn his keep, but people should find him entertaining any-way.