Wednesday, 21 August 2013

The Baltimore National Aquarium...and other MD wildlife

My in-laws' house in Maryland was the fifth destination of my recent trip, and, as Sasha and I discovered upon our arrival, Frank and Carmen really know how to welcome someone to their home. Some people roll out the red carpet; my in-laws cultivate a nest of barn swallows:

This is the cutest thing you will see all day
Sasha and I normally don't do many touristy activities when we're visiting the US, but this time around we were adventurous and headed into Baltimore to explore the National Aquarium.

The Baltimore Harbor
I've never really spent that much time in Baltimore, though I've heard many lovely things about the improvements the city has made to its waterfront area. I don't know what it used to look like, but it was quite pleasant and bustling on the day that we were there. Amazingly, Baltimore, like my in-laws, also rolled out some baby birds in order to welcome us:

Obviously, the city still needs to do a tad more cleaning up of its harbor
As you might expect, the aquarium featured many forms of aquatic life, but there were also a number of other types of animals. Our first destination was the Animal Planet Australia exhibit, which is designed to replicate an Australian river gorge. At the entrance, there was a replica cave painting that I immediately recognized, having shown photos of the original in my "A Brief History of Birds in Art" lecture:

This modern replica shows emu-like birds known as Genyornis--a species that went extinct approximately 40,000 years ago. Original paintings of these birds date back to the time when humans were first settling the Australian continent.

The Australia exhibit was full of free-flying birds, which, of course, were very distracting to me. I wanted to get photos of every species I saw, but was continually stymied by the relatively poor lighting conditions and the speed with which the animals moved. I did manage to snag a couple of decent photos before leaving the exhibit:

A galah, or rose-breasted cockatoo. Sasha and I saw many of these in the wild when we visited Australia in 2010.

Emerald dove basking under a heat lamp

After returning from Down Under, we briefly entered the arena where guests can go to watch the dolphin show. I found this too depressing for words and had to leave shortly after our arrival. It is one thing to keep captive animals that are relatively small, sedentary, and/or not in need of a great deal of mental stimulation. It is another to have cetaceans other species that are highly social, incredibly clever, and naturally inclined to roam around vast areas of space. It was heartbreaking to watch the dolphins repeatedly swim in circles around their tank--which had no topography or toys or any other form of entertainment for the animals. I really hope the dolphins spend the majority of their time elsewhere, and aren't forced to spend the bulk of their time in conditions that dull.

Much more tolerable was the exhibit on jellyfish, which are, literally, brainless. I'm guessing that these guys probably don't care where they are living, as long as there is sufficient food there.

It wasn't easy to photograph the jellies through the curved glass of their aquaria, but I think the photos do an adequate job conveying how graceful and elegant the animals looked.

Medusae of the genus Cassiopea. These guys earned their named from living "upside-down" on the sea floor. They were famously written about in Stephen Jay Gould's essay (and, later, book) "The Flamingo's Smile." In addition to the larger medusae grouped together in the middle, there are also lots of tiny ones sitting by themselves around the periphery of the tank.

After stopping for a quick cup of tea, we next went to explore the coral reef, which can be observed from multiple perspectives on multiple levels (literally, I mean--the reef sits in the middle of an atrium that is several stories high).

Reefs are notoriously hard to grow in captivity, so, like many museums and aquaria, the National Aquarium relies on artificial coral to provide the foundation for its reef habitat. The effect is pretty convincing until you get up close. None of the wildlife seem to care what their home is made of, however; they are just happy to swim around and nibble on food whenever it appears.

Fish like romaine lettuce. Who knew?

Unlike corals, there are many species of habitat-forming sea life that don't appear to mind living in artificial conditions. We encountered one tank in which an anemone was the site of a standoff between a couple of resident clownfish (a.k.a. anemonefish) and a small school of cardinalfish: 

A dramatic standoff between cardinalfish and anemonefish. The former are delicate and beautiful, but I imagine it is a bit threatening to have a whole group of them staring you down.

Nearby was a display of sea birds, including guillemots, razorbills, and puffins. Seeing these species always reminds me of our yearly field trips to the Isles of Scilly, when we see the birds in the wild just as they are beginning their migration back for the spring breeding season. The auks are so cute that it is always a delight to encounter them, though it's disturbing to see them behaving in ways that suggest they've begun to go a bit crazy from being in captivity for so long. It reminds me of the portion of Happy Feet where Mumble nearly loses his mind after being thrown in a zoo. On the up side, these are very charismatic species, and one conservationist recently wrote that puffins are so endearing that they can inspire people to become environmentalists.


After touring the North Atlantic and Pacific seas, we wandered over to the upland tropical rain forest section of the aquarium. There we found, among other things, some lovely frog species: 

Blue poison dart frog. It is hard to imagine that anything so tiny and beautiful could be deadly.

Amazon milk frog
Sasha and my in-laws encountered many species they recognized from their own experiences in the tropics, and there was much reminiscing and even some singing of animal-themed folk songs. We also wandered through a small indoor rain forest, where we encountered a sloth and a wide variety of beautiful, brightly-colored birds. I didn't manage to get good photos of any of them, which is understandable for the fast-moving birds, but pretty inexcusable for the stationary sloth.

Although there were probably a couple more exhibits we could have visited after this one, we had to take off before we ran out of time on our parking meter. One nice thing about my in-laws' home is that we could continue to do wildlife-watching once we got there; the yard is full of birds and bugs, and the house is brimming with my father-in-law's beautiful orchids.

A lepidopteran friend I made while having dinner on the deck
Some of my father-in-law's floral children

It is a rare thing for Sasha and me to visit Maryland at any time other than Christmas, so it was a pleasure to experience the area in the summer--and to do something other than go gift shopping. The National Aquarium is not a cheap destination ($34.95 per adult ticket), but it is definitely more peaceful, aesthetically pleasing, and educational than the mall!

1 comment:

  1. I went to the Aquarium few years ago and it was very interesting and i enjoyed a lot. I had seen the sharks there which are the dangerous species among all the fishes and they are not meant for home aquarium.