Travel Tips

Family Eco-Travel: A Trio of Awesome Aquariums

Locations in this article:  Chicago, IL Toronto, Canada

Shedd Aquarium - TurtleOur fascination with the undersea world is nothing less than primal.  

The chance to enter into a world at once mysterious and familiar—populated by creatures that would make Maurice Sendak proud.

Fortunately, for those who prefer our underwater viewing from the safety of dry land, The Virtuous Traveler Leslie Garrett uncovers a trio of incredible aquariums, each offering up a distinct view—and point of view—of our water ecosystems: ocean, river and freshwater lake.


Monterey Bay in California is one of the world’s best-known aquariums. Most recently, it has earned considerable accolades for its pocket-sized sustainable seafood download, advising foodies which seafood is a do … and which is a definite don’t.

Aquarium CakeWhen I caught up with the folks at Monterey Bay, they were attacking an enormous cake in honor of the aquarium’s 25th birthday.

Though it has been 15 years since my first Monterey visit, it seems the aquarium has only grown better … and greener. Long a leader in teaching about conservation, Monterey has ramped up its efforts, making conservation an explicit part of its mandate in 1996.

According to Ken Peterson, spokesperson for the aquarium, not only do visitors expect more of the aquarium in terms of its conservation efforts, but the aquarium staff demand more of themselves. “It all starts with the animals,” he says. “Folks fall in love with the animals in the exhibits, we alert them to the dangers they face in the wild [such as] poorly managed fisheries, industrial-scale fishing and fish-farming, and then we offer solutions.”

Peterson says aquarium staff know that “visitors expect us to speak out and tell them what to do,” a role they continue as the threat to oceans and marine life grows with increasing climate change.

Monterey was one of 10 Affordable Fall Getaways in the USA & Abroad.

Epaulette sharkBut while you may achieve an education and conservation mandate while visiting Monterey Bay, you’ll likely be having too much fun to really notice. The aquarium remains noted for its Great White Shark, the fifth to spend time at the aquarium dazzling visitors and alerting them to the threats it faces, before being released back into the wild.

You’ll also meet Makana, a young female Laysan albatross, which came to the aquarium unable to survive in the wild. Meeting Makana makes clear the point that close to half of these chicks die when ingesting plastic their mothers mistakenly bring to the nest as food.

Monterey’s also one of Six Great Back-to-School Vacations for Families.

Monterey Aquarium Sea OtterOf course, the perennial favorite is the sea otters and an up close view will ensure that you’ll make sea otter protection a priority. New features include a permanent Splash Zone, offering kids a touch pool and interactive exhibits.

The Pacific Ocean provides a dramatic and fitting backdrop to the aquarium and its work, and ensures that the connection between what you see and the wild can’t be ignored.



The Aquarium—six stories of glass, chrome and wonder—was created with conservation as its goal, to teach it and to model it, says Jim Fierson, vice chairman of the Chattanooga Green Committee.

Leafy seadragonBut though the Tennessee River ran, literally, past the site, initial plans were to create an ocean aquarium. A brilliant suggestion ensured that the aquarium offer up an insider’s glimpse at a river ecosystem, a departure from many aquariums. The River Journey building, the original built in 1982, focuses on freshwater creatures from the nearby river and around the world.

The building’s architecture—with ramps zigging and zagging along glass walls—ensures that visitors get eyeball to eyeball with spectacular river life and brilliantly engages us in an often overlooked ecosystem.

Visitors get up close and personal with Crayola-colored ducks, vivid butterflies, talking birds, spectacular sponges, and Jurassic-esque fish (the kind one hopes to never find on the end of a fishing rod).

Don’t miss Leslie Garrett’s report on Chattanooga: Unexpectedly Green Cities: Eco-Travel in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

A penguin named BugThe more recently built Ocean Journey building houses, of course, sea creatures, including sharks, sea turtles and the ever-delightful penguins (if you miss them after your visit, you can watch them 24/7 on the museum’s PenguinCam).

Children will find plenty of opportunities to get their hands wet, play penguin or figuratively dive into this bizarre world. They can even get inside a shark cage (sans shark, fortunately).

Movie lovers won’t want to miss the on-site IMAX Theatre, which shows watery films and popular mainstream movies.


Don’t miss more great experiences in our Museum Travel section.


Clownfish - Shedd AquariumThe Shedd has been taking visitors to an undersea world for longer than just about any aquarium in the world—opening its doors to the public in 1930.

It’s an aquarium of superlatives housed in a behemoth building—422,000 square feet—situated on the shores of Lake Michigan and focusing much of its exhibit space on freshwater lake ecosystems.

It boasts the oldest fish in captivity, an Australian lungfish named Granddad, who arrived at the venue in 1933 and is estimated to be at least 80 years old. The Shedd’s Oceanarium is the world’s largest indoor marine mammal facility and houses a Philippine coral reef, the most diverse marine ecosystem in the world.

View Leslie Garrett’s Eco-Travel Chicago: More Green Than Meets the Eye.

What’s more, the building itself is the first in Chicago to have a “soybean” roof, a green roof that is estimated to save 95,000 kilowatt hours annually in air conditioning.

Shedd Aquarium - Moon JellyBut while all that makes for good cocktail chatter, it’s the exhibits that draw gasps. Check out Belugas, Pacific White-sided dolphins, crocodiles, sea lions, and penguins, along with freshwater creatures—all delivered along with a dose of education and advice on conservation.

You’ll also find eco-minded menus at the Shedd’s numerous restaurants, delivering the point that conservation relies in many of our day-to-day choices.

Unfortunately—or not, depending on your viewpoint—the Shedd’s new show, “Fantasea,” reduces its education component to a few brief, pre-show minutes, then dazzles with a theatrical display that makes clowns of nature’s creatures (though the penguins seem uniquely predisposed to clowniness). However, the audience seemed to love it.

The aquarium is most definitely worth a visit. Fantasea? You can make up your own mind.


Leslie Garrett is author of The Virtuous Consumer: Your Essential Shopping Guide for a Better, Kinder, Healthier World.Visit her at

Previously By Leslie Garrett: