Mixed Feelings about Mystic Aquarium
Written: Aug 20, 2000
a Very Helpful Review
by the Epinions community
Pros:variety of fish/mammal/bird/invertebrate species, clean, parklike grounds, handicapped-friendly, aquarium participates in noble research/rehab/conservation efforts, terrific gift shop
Cons:expensive, crowded, marine mammal demos not as good as they used to be, inadequate information posted about animals, shameless merchandising
I have visited the Mystic Aquarium since I was a child. I have a fascination with fishes, and I admire Mystic's efforts in research, rescue, and conservation. Yet I write this review with a sense of unease. In recent years, Mystic Aquarium has poured a tremendous amount of money into "improvements." Is the Mystic Aquarium still a good place to visit? Yes. Is it better than it was five years ago? Well, I'm not so sure.
I live a little over a hundred miles from Mystic Aquarium. Mystic is a convenient halfway point between metro New York and Cape Cod, MA. It is easy to get to off of the Connecticut Turnpike, aka Route 95 to folks in this area. Located on 18 acres, the aquarium is not especially large. Nonetheless, they house a vast array of fish and marine mammal species.
The Good News:
Fish, Fish, Fish
I don't know about anybody else, but I visit an aquarium to see FISHES. The backbone of the aquarium itself is the building labelled "Sunlit Seas," which contains a number of aquaria of various sizes with an assortment of fishes and invertebrates. The interior of the building is dark which serves to showcase the illuminated tanks as well as reduce the feeling of crowdedness and chaos as one views everything. There is comfortable seating in case anyone needs to take a break.
Some highlights include:
Jellyfish. There is a tall, circular tank with jellyfish that greets the visitor as soon as they step into the building. The effect is almost eerie as one watches the ghostlike creatures float and gently pulsate as if drifting through outer space.
Starfish. A true kid-pleaser, one tank contains a number of HUGE starfishes, often clinging to the glass. The glass is always smudged with handprints of children who place their little palms up against the starfish, a kid's version of an interspecies high-five.
Coral Reef. The centerpiece of the building is a 28' tall, 30,000 gallon circular tank that contains an assortment of colorful tropical fishes and rays against a backdrop of artificial coral. This is one of those lifesized tanks that makes the viewer ooh and ahh at the grace of the life-forms that glide past.
Seahorses. Another kids' favorite is the seagrass bed. A mass of delicate little seahorses live among long strands of eel grass that they cling to with their tails.
Octopus Cave. In the category of "oh yuck," there is a darkened cave that houses the biggest, ugliest octopus anyone would ever want to see. This is the stuff of adult nightmares! Calamari, anyone?
Tidal Marsh. One of my favorites, this is not a flashy exhibit but it is one of the more down-to-Earth. Water fills the exhibit from ground to waist level, with the top of the exhibit open. Above ground, there is a grassy shoreline with piped-in songbird sound effects. Below, a variety of local crabs (horseshoe, hermit, and rock) and fishes (mummichogs and silversides) go about their daily routine. I love this exhibit, because it feels like a slice of nature.
Rocky Shore. Another favorite is this tank, filled with big, brutish striped bass and tautog (again, local species). What makes this a fun exhibit is that it represents local wildlife in a naturalistic way. Waves crash down onto a the rocks and water below, demonstrating to the viewer a rocky shore from the fishes' perspective.
Spiny Lobsters. Allow me to digress from my "oh how I love nature" attitude for a moment. This tank contains ENORMOUS spiny lobsters and makes any sensible seafood eater think of melted garlic butter and cornbread stuffing. Unfortunately this exhibit is not affiliated with the dining area.
Live Coral. One small tank is particularly striking, and this is the aquarium containing live coral. A showcase of a variety of coral species, this tank is reminiscent of a vividly colorful summer flower garden.
Tidal Pool. This is a shallow, waist-level, open tank that is approximately 20' in length. It is filled with a variety of anemone and crabs and also reminds the viewer of a garden.
Lookdown Fish. An extremely striking exhibit, this is a pitch-black tank filled with palm-sized, pancake-flat, metallic silver fish illuminated from below. The effect is tremendous, both ghostly and comical (the latter due to the expressions of the fish themselves who resemble wizened old men). Although it certainly looks fantastic, this observer has to question the effect on the fish themselves. Certainly this sort of presentation is NOT natural, nor is there any information posted about the fish or why the aquarium chose to display them in this manner. I will discuss this more, but this is part of what displeases me about Mystic. This particular display, showy as it is, uses the fish as theatrical ornaments rather than displaying them in a naturalistic manner.
Polkadot Cardinalfish. I've seen these little guys in pet stores under the name "pajamafish" which I think fits them quite well. Coin-shaped, these little fish have big red eyes and are covered with bright red polkadots from the "waist" down, as if they were wearing gaudy pajama-bottoms. A large school is presented in a tank under an umbrella of tree roots. They hang so motionless as to appear catatonic or fake.
There are plenty of other fish, and exhibits change periodically. One can find everything from colorful tropicals to the eccentric and pug-ugly. The latter are among my favorites. Few people can see a Coin-Bearing Frogfish or a Long-Horned Cowfish without laughing at their very peculiar "beauty."
Although this might seem like a frivolous note, the grounds themselves are very attractive and pleasant to stroll. Outdoors, between exhibits, one can find seasonal wildflowers and other carefully-tended and probably underappreciated landscaping. Huge bronze sculptures of a dolphin, penguins, and sea lions are nice touches. Also nice touches are tunnels and caves made out of stone for children to scramble through.
Marine Mammal Habitats
Alaskan Coast. This is the most staggering, absolutely incredible feature of Mystic Aquarium. The 1-acre, 750,000 gallon pool that represents a shallow, Alaskan coastal feeding ground houses Beluga Whales and Harbor Seals (which are unobtrusively separated from one another). Visitors can watch these species from above ground or from underwater vantages. It's amazing how some sand on the bottom and rocks throughout can make a tank feel like a habitat. Behind the harbor seals, a small waterfall splashes down, and driftwood between the tank and the "beach" provides a nice, naturalistic effect. The water is spotlessly clean. Unfortunately it smells faintly of chlorine rather than salt (which makes this observer wonder about the healthfulness of it).
Pribilof Islands. Also outdoors, this exhibit houses Northern Fur Seals and the gigantic Stellar Sea Lions. Both species are crowd-pleasers, swimming about, sunning themselves, honking nosily, and scrapping harmlessly amongst themselves. Staff members are nearby to give periodic talks about the animals and/or answer visitor questions.
Marine Bird Habitat
Penguins. Another big crowd-pleaser is the penguin exhibit. These undeniably comical creatures can be viewed from above ground or from underwater vantage points. On land, penguins are pretty unimpressive creatures. But to watch them swim is to have fun. Faster than dolphins, these little guys zoom around like tuxedo-clad torpedos.
Although I am not disabled, it is worthwhile to note that this facility appears to be not only accessible but actively friendly towards physically-challenged patrons. Wheelchairs can be borrowed on-site, and virtually all exhibits are easily reached by ramps rather than steps. I always see plenty of wheelchair-bound visitors to Mystic when I visit.
Mystic Aquarium hosts large crowds, so again it is important to note that the bathrooms are clean and large. Ladies rooms have plenty of stalls, so even when there is a crowd, the waiting is never unbearable.
The Mystic Aquarium gift shop has anything anybody could ever want to purchase... and more. It is HUGE, both in physical size and in variety of items. Where else can one purchase a plush squid or moray eel? A sea-turtle handpuppet? T-shirts, mugs, postcards, humpback whale music, dishes, sculptures, etc. etc. The variety of books alone, ranging from children's coloring books to seafood cookbooks (gasp!) is staggering. The proceeds go towards the research and conservation efforts of the aquarium.
On the Weaker Side:
The aquarium is filled with videos that are, perhaps, educational or informative. But in the 20+ years that I've visited Mystic, I've never watched one. Nor have I ever seen ANYone watch one! I think that they fill space but are one of the weaker notes of the aquarium. Frankly I'd rather read a sign than have to watch a video.
There is not enough educational and informative material available to the visitor. Placards are absent or contain virtually no information (and yes, I'm one of those people who likes to read about the species I'm looking at). Few, if any, of the animals are labelled with their real species names (the latin stuff), and information is lacking. Tell me what the fishes I'm looking at are related to, where they live, how they eat, what makes them unique. I want to know about these fishes, yet when I leave the aquarium I feel somehow empty. I've SEEN fish, but do I really KNOW any more about them then when I arrived? I want meat, not just empty calories. Perhaps hardcore information is available in specially-designated educational programs, but it should be more accessible to the casual visitor.
Yes, I know they have to pay their bills, but it gets tiring. There is not just an enormous and impressive gift shop, but there are smaller concessions all over the place. Visit the penguins, there's a penguin concession. Heck, right outside the gift shop itself is a concession! It's too much. One feels that they're being hit on for cash the entire time they're at the aquarium.
Institute for Exploration
In fairness, I have never looked at this side of Mystic. As I understand it, it is the goal of this organization to make underwater archeaology a viable area of research. They have an 8-minute video and simulated 3,000' remote dive below the ocean surface. Yawn, not my thing. I visit an aquarium for the critters. Other folks may feel differently.
The Down Side:
Visiting Mystic is not inexpensive! Admission: $16/adult, $15/senior, $11/child 3-12. Let's put this in perspective... If Mom, Dad, teenage Junior, and the schoolage twins decide to visit the aquarium, they're out $70 just to get through the door.
Let's say they get hungry. If Mom and Dad split a 20 ounce soda ($1.75), and each have a hotdog ($1.75 twice), the twins also split a soda and each have a slice of pizza ($2.25 twice), and Junior - being a strapping young lad - has a soda, fries ($1.60), and 2 burgers ($4.15 twice), they'll spend another $23.15. Their wallet is now $93.15 leaner.
If they visit the gift shop (with KIDS?!), they can easily spend twice that amount.
Marine Mammal Demonstrations
In previous years, visitors were treated to a dolphin and whale "show" that ran a good 30+ minutes in length, talked about the species, and tied that into a nice message about conservation. Visitors got to see dolphins leap, hear Belugas honk, and learn a little about how and why the animals are trained.
Now that the Belugas are in their own home away from the dolphins, they are no longer showcased in the "show" that takes place in the marine mammal theatre. The dolphin-only show lasts a grand total of 15 minutes, and the staff seems like they're going through the motions. Ouch. The quality of the presentation is NOT what it used to be! What they do discuss is good: dolphin anatomy and how it helps a dolphin function in the wild, "vocalizations" and their function, and echolocation (nicely demonstrated by blindfolding a dolphin and sending her out to retrieve a triangular object from among objects of other shapes).
The problem is that it feels hurried and abbreviated, and I quickly realized why. They serve up these "shows" every hour, so they need to keep them short. Presumably this allows them to bang more people through the gates, but quality suffers. It feels like fast food, and I miss the better presentations of previous years.
Alongside the Beluga pool, I was pleased to realize that my timing was perfect. I happened to be there for an unannounced 10-minute training session, what appeared to be an informal "show." Unfortunately the acoustics were terrible. I gather that there is male there on a breeding loan, along with 4 females. But I couldn't hear much else. When the Belugas spit water on the audience on cue, everyone was amused, but the inability to hear what the trainer was discussing was a major drawback.
Later on, I discovered that the acoustics were great if one stood in a breezeway out of view of the whales. Somebody slap the electrician who hooked up THAT speaker system!
Although I don't miss the hokey theatrics of past demos, nor the canned "sounds of the ocean" muzak, nor the painfully chirpy presenters, the consumer in me EXPECTS more than I saw this time around. I'm not sure if this is a reflection of growing pains on the part of the aquarium or if this is their new style. I don't like it.
Crowd and Kids
The free 750-space parking lot fills quickly, as does the 1,200 seat dolphin theatre discussed above. The entire aquarium fills rapidly and gets painfully crowded. If you don't like loud crowds and large herds of small overzealous children, this is not the place for you!
My Special Ambivalence:
Not only can the Atlantic Bottlenosed Dolphins be viewed from above during their "show," but one can view them from underwater from inside the building that houses the Sunlit Seas. There's something terribly tragic about watching such beautiful, graceful, intelligent animals locked inside an oversized goldfish bowl. Thankfully, the Belugas now have a home outdoors. But the dolphins still circle and swim in a barren tank indoors. Even the skylight above and the plastic toys in the pool don't lift this viewer's sense of sadness at watching a captive dolphin.
Mystic is home to three dolphins. One, from what I gather, was recently rescued and is being rehabilitated. Unfortunately, no one discussed her while I was there. This is my frustration with this place. I want INFORMATION about these animals!! Another, Misty, is a 23 year old female dolphin who knows 60 hand signals. Again, I don't know anything else about her. Where did she originally come from? How long has she been at Mystic? If I knew something, maybe I could feel better about her being there.
Internet research has taught me a lot about Stormy, their third dolphin. He's a three-year-old male who was saved from certain death when he washed ashore the coast of Texas in September, 1998. He had been separated from his mother at too young an age, attacked by sharks, and suffering from disease. He was nursed back to health and moved to Mystic in March, 1999. He now knows 11 hand signals and participates in the dolphin "show" alongside Misty.
Knowing that Stormy was saved from certain death and that he can never be released into the wild (because he never learned how to properly hunt for food from his mother) makes me feel better about him living as a captive animal. Training will be his mental stimulation, and he will serve to teach others about his species. I'm still not altogether comfortable with the idea of a dolphin in a little barren tank, but I understand the greater good of using dolphins like Stormy to educate and teach people compassion for marine mammals.
The Bottom Line:
Mystic Aquarium is, in fact, an impressive place to see a variety of aquatic creatures. It's expensive, crowded, and perhaps not as good as it could be, but it's still worth visiting. My greatest complaint is the lack of posted information about the species on display.
By the way, I'm wearing a t-shirt from there as I write this.
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