The Maritime Aquarium at Norwalk has come a long way since it opened 30 years ago, on July 16, 1988. What used to be the Maritime Center at Norwalk, focusing primarily on seafaring themes and stewardship of the Long Island Sound, is now one of the state’s premier destinations for family fun. Where once were boat-building classes and exhibits of vintage sailing vessels, there are now touch tanks, exhibits of sharks and jellyfish and harbor seals, even an albino alligator.
The aquarium has even recently opened its arms to pretend animals. This summer, kids can visit a stuffed-animal hospital, called a Care-ium, to do medical examinations, even “X-rays” on stuffed toys.
And on July 21, the aquarium is throwing itself a birthday party.
“We’ve changed a lot in 30 years. We’ve grown exponentially, not just in our physical footprint but also in ways we exhibit marine animals and in the way we educate people about the environment of the Long Island Sound,” says Dave Sigworth, spokesman for the aquatic zoo in the burgeoning SoNo neighborhood.
The Albino Alligator
Until the end of summer, the aquarium has a particularly spooky resident: that albino alligator, an eerie-looking white creature with faint tinges of pink in its eyes and hide. The gator, named Snowflake, lives alone in his pond, covered by a tent to protect its delicate skin.
Albino alligators are rare because their skin — so much paler than normal alligators, which are usually green, brown, gray, black or a combination of those — makes it impossible for them to hide from predators or ambush prey, and direct sunlight endangers their health.
“Their problem is that albinos must stay out of the sun, but reptiles need heat to survive,” Sigworth says. The aquarium provided Snowflake with two heated rocks under a shelter, to warm himself without direct exposure.
The Care-ium And Beyond
The stuffed-animal Care-ium will be up all summer, too. (The Care-ium has toys to use. Kids don’t need to bring their own, but they can.) Sigworth says the Care-ium is intended to teach kids the similarities between animals and humans.
“If they see the reasons why animals go to the doctor, and they go to the doctor themselves, they’ll see there’s nothing to be afraid of,” Sigworth says.
Elsewhere in the aquarium, visitors can touch sharks, rays, jellyfish and other swimming critters, see seals, sea lions, a wide variety of scary “dragons” and Squirt, a loggerhead turtle, before he is returned to the ocean in the fall. The venue also displays land animals such as boxy, knobby leopard tortoises and frisky meerkats, who chase each other around their enclosure, swing lazily on tree swings and gaze through the glass at humans just like humans looking through the glass at the meerkats.
Play areas for toddlers and older kids are scattered throughout the aquarium. Divers enter the shark tank on Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays. The site also has a lively schedule of Long Island Sound cruises.
The Birthday Party
The aquarium is throwing itself a 30th birthday party on Saturday, June 21. It will offer lots of extra activities for families: a DJ, music, a photo booth, two classic, fan-favorite IMAX movies, a cake, strolling entertainers. One attraction on that day will especially please parents: admission prices reduced to the rates charged in 1988, the year the aquarium opened.
The aquarium also will feature another attraction that harkens back to the aquarium’s past. A boatwright will be on site that day, showing off a boat he is working on and discussing boatbuilding.
“We were a maritime aquarium, but over time we became less maritime and more aquarium,” Sigworth says. “Until 2007 we had a boat-building shop, a boatwright on staff, classes on how to make kayaks and wooden sailboats, nautical activities, navigation activities, historic boats.”
The facility changed its name in 1996. The aquarium still has knot-tying activities, but for the most part, it is all aquarium.
MARITIME AQUARIUM AT NORWALK is at 10 Water St. Admission on Saturday, June 21, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. is $9.50 adults and seniors, $5.50 kids 3 to 12, free to 2 and younger. On other days, admission is $24.95 adults, $22.95 seniors, $17.95 ages 3 to 12, free to 2 and younger. Admission includes one IMAX film. Daily IMAX films are “Backyard Wilderness,” “Great White Shark” and “Pandas.” On Saturday, June 21, only, the IMAX lineup includes “Dolphins” and “The Living Sea.” maritimeaquarium.org.