On June 30, the New York Aquarium in Coney Island welcomed some sharp-toothed new residents to NYC, with the much-anticipated opening of the Ocean Wonders: Sharks! exhibit. The exhibit, which includes a learning lab, nine interactive galleries, and beautiful, immersive habitats that are home to over 115 species of marine animals, is a powerful reminder that New York is a coastal city, with thriving marine ecosystems right in our own (watery) backyard that deserve our respect and protection.
After the aquarium was pummeled by Hurricane Sandy, much of the complex had to close down for repairs. But with the opening of the shark exhibit, housed in a brand-new, three-story building with 57,000 square feet of visiting space, the New York Aquarium is better and more inspiring than ever. Gather up the kids and get ready for a day of close encounters with an incredible variety of ocean life.
Kids will be awed as they are surrounded in sea life in the glass tunnel.
The new building that houses the Ocean Wonders: Sharks! exhibit is near the rear of the aquarium, with interactive galleries that encourage different ways to connect with the ocean's creatures. One of the first things you encounter is a glass tunnel that allows visitors to walk through a breathtaking coral reef. Visitors are surrounded on all sides by colorful fish, plants, and coral, and sharks swim by in every direction (including overhead). Immersion is the general vibe of the exhibit: Without actually being underwater, this is the closest you can come to such remarkable animals and sea life. My toddler's jaw dropped—how could they possibly top this?
Sharks swim right past you in this immersive exhibit.
Incredibly, the exhibit gets you up close to even more sharks, offering different views of the massive predators and other types of ocean life, with an overall focus on conservation. There are over 115 species incorporated into this one building, including sea turtles and 18 kinds of sharks and rays. Dive into everything from shark reproduction to their pivotal role in the ocean's ecosystem. The exhibit celebrates the diversity of the species and their unique features, including a place kids can get hands-on and touch the teeth of several types of sharks to learn about their differences. Ever wanted to see how a shark embryo develops month by month? Now you can! Touch screens, light-up shark eggs and tons of interactive and tactile features help bring the ocean alive for a huge range of ages.
Crawl through a glass tunnel to feel like you're in the depths of the ocean, surrounded by marine life.
Located near the middle of the exhibit, there is a smaller tunnel that visitors can crawl through to be (literally) surrounded entirely by sea life. This was the highlight for my children. My 1-year-old was just the right height to toddle through the tunnel, though he was puzzled by the sensation of the transparent floor underneath him. Older kids and adults have to crawl. Once you are inside, it truly feels like you are swimming with the sharks! It is definitely a small space and involves some maneuvering to get through, especially with a purse or a baby in tow. However, it's worth going in if the crowds will allow it—even just to snap a quick photo. You can also opt to skip the tunnel and watch people crawl through from the wall of the tank. My kids loved waving at each other from different sides of the glass, and it took at least 30 minutes to extract my 2-year-old because he was having such a great time.
There is yet another floor-to-ceiling glass viewing wall with enormous sandbar sharks gliding by. Comfortable benches give little feet a rest, and provide a great place to watch the underwater action.
Help fight the dangers that face our oceans and environment in the "Stomp the Trash" game.
One of the last interactive pieces in the exhibit was a "Stomp the Trash" game projected on the floor. Visitors follow "floating" pieces of trash and stomp them with their feet. This was another big hit with the toddlers, and a great, interactive way to finish our visit. Since the aquarium is run by the Wildlife Conservation Society, there is an overarching focus on protecting our oceans and keeping them clean. The game is a fun, tactile way to bring awareness to their mission.
It's not just sharks: Colorful coral and sea life will mesmerize kids, too.
The exhibit offers education and inspiration in equal amounts. Visiting with older children, you may find yourself lingering more on the education pieces that smaller kids might not fully understand, but all the information is presented in a fun and interactive way that helps younger kids get excited about what they are seeing. The underwater views are unmissable—the colors of the coral, the sharks gliding by, the breathtaking rays and turtles and fish. There was so much to take in, and my children were transfixed from start to finish. Before we had even left the parking lot, both my children were fast asleep, clutching their shark stuffed animals.
Keep an eye on New York Aquarium over the coming years: There are more exhibits in line to get rebuilt, revamped, and ready to inspire ocean lovers of all ages. Check their website for half-price tickets this summer, because this wonderful exhibit shouldn't be missed!
What to Know Before You Go
If you drive, the aquarium lot costs $13. There are plenty of other lots nearby, as well as street parking. You can also arrive by subway, which is a short walk from the aquarium.
The aquarium offers some snack options and places to eat. Be aware that much of the space is outside, so bring umbrellas on a rainy day! The whole complex is stroller friendly.
No visit to Coney Island is complete without a stroll down the boardwalk and a visit to Nathan's for a hot dog. You can also take a short walk down to the ocean to see where sharks, turtles, fish and rays really live!
Photos by the author unless otherwise noted