Unlike the hit comedy, "Night at the Museum" the exhibits at the National Aquarium in Baltimore really do come alive after hours. Well, okay they are alive during the day as well, but at night, you get to see them from a completely new perspective.
Several nights a year the Aquarium is open for families to enjoy a special overnight adventure. We made reservations as soon as the aquarium listed their upcoming immersion tours. On the night of our adventure, we took our sleeping bags and pillows and reported to the member's only entrance. The entire evening was well planned with small groups trekking through back passages, hidden doors and back stairways never seen by the public during daylight general admission.
A special treat late at night was meeting up with five divers that were going into the multi story Atlantic Reef tank to "light up" the coral and point out creatures and fish that can only be seen at night. After a brief introduction, we were given two warnings, "don't bang on the glass," and I didn't quite catch the second instruction, as I was distracted with a question from one of my daughters. This lack of attention on my part would come back to haunt me later, and one of the divers, but for different reasons.
The divers slipped into the water as the lights were dimmed nearly to total darkness. This made the divers lights seem extra bright as they beamed over coral and lit up some daylight shy fish. Two very large tanks, as in more than a quarter million gallons of water each, are stacked in a racetrack shape with a walkway and ramp that spirals down the center. This provides a 360-degree view of hundreds of tropical fish traveling alone or in schools through the coral.
As I made my way down one level, I noticed a crowd of silhouettes by the glass watching an illuminated diver move his beacon down the coral. He then turned to the glass, and aimed the light towards the silhouettes. This looked like a great photo opportunity, to capture a human inside the tank looking out. I underestimated the intensity of the tiny flash on my camera. The room was so dark, and my flash so bright that the click of my camera shutter created what sounded like a gunshot followed by an explosion of blinding light At that instant I realized what the second warning was that I thought I missed - "no flash pictures!" As the diver reeled back from the glass, temporarily blinded, I heard gasping from the now blinded dark shapes in front of me, I quickly moved on to the next floor, before they regained their sight and were able to identify the culprit. The darkness also covered my now red face.
Later, with the lights on, we followed one of the guides single file through an unmarked door that led us to a walkway only inches above the shark tank. As we walked along the grated catwalk, I had to get on my hands and knees to crawl under the pipes that pumped water or carried cables to somewhere in the building. This was truly a backstage tour. It was thrilling to be so close to the sharks below.
There were plenty of hands-on exhibits and teaching opportunities for everyone. My daughters had a great time examining the horseshoe crabs and identifying different types of fish.
After snacks, we were led to the 1300 seat amphitheater where the aquariums' bottlenose dolphin put on exhibitions several times a day. There was no exhibition in the evening, but our sleeping area was downstairs in the viewing area where we could look through the glass into the tank. Just before lights out, the curtains on the tank were drawn to give them some privacy.
We picked out a spot on the floor to roll out our sleeping bags. The floor was hard but the evening was fun.
In the morning, we were treated to breakfast and then a private tour of the rain forest where the kids help feed the tropical birds and other wildlife with live grubs and worms. Called the "bug drop" breakfast, it's yucky, but fun.
The rainforest has trees up to 80 feet tall to recreate a rainforest canopy and atmosphere. I spent my morning trying to locate the two-toed sloth, and the golden lion monkeys. A number of colorful parrots, birds, and lizards can be seen throughout the dense foliage.
This adventure was well worth the time and money that we invested. Perhaps we'll meet at a future night at the aquarium, only this time, I'll leave the flash at home.
Getting There: Located at the Inner Harbor in downtown Baltimore. There are a number of Immersion Tours and overnight special events at the aquarium, such as the new Dolphin Encounter, Breakfast with the Dolphins, Wild Extremes Sleepover and my favorite, Sharks! Behind the Scenes Tour. Costs vary for the different events so check out the website, call 410-576-3833 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. There may still be some openings for the November and December events.