Best Aquariums in U.S. for Unforgettable Sea Life Encounters

The best aquariums care for their aquatic residents and provide visitors unforgettable experiences. Learning should be fun after all. When planning a family vacation, consider starting with these destinations that offer award-winning aquariums and extra programs. The whole family will want to learn more about the best aquariums in U.S. for unforgettable sea life encounters.

Best Aquariums in U.S. Where Guests Can Play and Learn

best aquariums sea life encounter

Birch Aquarium at Scripps, La Jolla, CA

Birch Aquarium is located at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in the San Diego area. What makes this one of the best aquariums for encounters is more than 60 habitats visitors can explore. Exhibits range from seahorses and whales to coral displays and a hall of different fish.

On Tuesdays and Thursdays, kids learn and share at Explore-It Think Tank. Other activities include tidepooling, snorkeling, whale-watching and moonlit pier walks. For about $30 per person, guests can take a full moon pier tour of Ellen Browning Scripps Memorial Pier, which is normally closed to the public. The aquarium also hosts group tours, outdoor concerts and educational lectures.

Florida Aquarium, Tampa, FL

Often ranked among the best aquariums in U.S., Florida Aquarium in Tampa features more than 20,000 aquatic animals and plants. Exhibits include Madagascar with lemurs, wetlands, bays, beaches and coral reef. Kids should also bring their suits and play at the 2-acre outdoor water park, the Splash Pad. The play area is perfect for kids to interact and cool off while parents relax in the shade.

For up-close encounters, take a wild dolphin cruise and see some of the 500 dolphins that live in Tampa Bay. Visitors can also scuba, take behind-the-scenes tours, or try the backstage penguin adventure.

Maui Ocean Center, Wailuku, HI

Home to the largest collection of Pacific corals, Maui Ocean Center ranks high on the list of best aquariums. The attraction welcomes families to learn about native Hawaiian fish, sea turtles, six shark species and more. Guests also have opportunities to see more than 60 indoor and outdoor exhibits, including walking through a 54-foot tunnel.

To enhance the experience, take the behind-the-scenes tour where participants assist feedings at turtle lagoon and hammerhead harbor. Shark Dive Maui offers a more extreme experience as guests come face-to-face with sharks, rays and fish in a 750,000-gallon open exhibit.

best aquariums sea life encounter

Miami Seaquarium, Miami, FL

For more than 60 years, Miami Seaquarium has delighted guests in the greater Miami area. The 38-acre attraction features sea life favorites such as manatees, sea lions, sharks, dolphins and more. Families will also see killer whale and dolphin shows, as well as birds, tropical fish and crocodiles.

Popular close encounters range from swimming with dolphins to serving as trainer for the day. Visitors can also swim with seals, take a VIP tour to meet all kinds of animals, and an underwater walking journey.

Mote Marine Aquarium, Sarasota, FL

With a sole purpose to research and preservation, Mote Marine Aquarium features visible working labs and more than 100 species of marine life. Visit Mote and meet residents and scientists at this working aquarium. Guests see manatees, sea turtles and a 135,000-gallon shark habitat. Other exhibits educate visitors on Florida Bay habitats, rivers, oceans, otters and reef creatures.

This attraction also hosts several tours. Families can have breakfast at the Mote, where they enjoy early admission and a filling start to the day. Other adventures include shark encounters, kayaking, research charters and boat tours.

National Aquarium, Baltimore, MD

Those staying in Delaware Shores and Ocean City have easy access to the world-renown National Aquarium in Baltimore. One of the best aquariums in the world, this attraction offers visitors more than 20,000 fish, birds, reptiles, marine life and more. More than a dozen exhibits will delight guests.

Families can also get up-close with dolphins, and adults can join the aquarium guest diver program. For more daring adventures, take the shark tour and icky, creepy, slimy, cool tour. Both open to families with children over the age of 8 years old. Visitor tip: As this is one of the most visited and best aquariums in U.S., buy tickets a few weeks in advance.

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Ripley’s Aquarium of Myrtle Beach, Myrtle Beach, SC

Bright colors welcome guests to explore two levels of animals and exhibits at Ripley’s Aquarium of Myrtle Beach. As one of the top destinations in Myrtle Beach, the aquarium features dozens of exhibits and programs. The attraction hosts permanent and temporary exhibits, including stingrays, reefs, jellyfish, sharks, and even a mermaid meet-and-greet.

In addition, guests can try a custom experience – such as a summer camp or sleeping with sharks. The Sleep with Sharks activity suits guests of all ages — even adults and families can schedule a sleepover for their whole group. Other things to try include swimming with sharks, stingray encounters and behind-the-scenes tours.

Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies, Gatlinburg, TN

Not only one of the best aquariums for unforgettable encounters, but Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies is also one of the top in the world. It’s no coincidence that two Ripley’s Aquariums made this list. At this popular Smoky Mountain attraction, visitors can learn about ocean life, penguins, sharks and sting rays.

After exploring the aquarium, try one of the encounters. Packages include penguin encounters, sting ray encounters, penguin paintings, shark scene investigator and kids’ night out. The Kids’ Night Out program allows kids to stay in the aquarium overnight, participating in fun educational activities, while parents enjoy their own night out.

South Carolina Aquarium, Charleston, SC

Charleston is home to South Carolina Aquarium, a top attraction for sea life fans. The aquarium houses more than 5,000 animals and the state’s only sea turtle hospital. Animals include fish, seahorses, reptiles, sharks, octopus and more. The South Carolina Aquarium also showcases exhibits that feature everything from Carolina Mountains to the Atlantic Ocean.

To complete the trip, tour Sea Turtle Hospital. For only $10 per adult, $5 for children under 12, guests can see how the aquarium cares for and rehabilitates sea turtles. Adopt an animal programs are also available to guests who want to make a difference and show support.

After reading about the best aquariums in U.S., book a vacation rental in these destinations.

Looking for more up-close encounters? Check out these sightseeing options in the U.S.