Rekindling Childhood Wonder at the Aquarium

virginia aquarium sign

The Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center’s newly renovated South Building is an oasis for kids and a haven for conservation and wildlife education 

When I was a little girl, I religiously carried around a little stuffed otter that I got at the Virginia Aquarium gift shop after falling in love with the adorable creatures at the original otter habitat, which was part of the Aquarium previously known as the Marsh Pavilion before it closed for renovation in 2018.

That otter was my security stuffed animal until one day, my childhood dog Princess snagged it, and it became her baby from that moment on. I had to say goodbye to Princess when she was 16. But one reminder of her remains: her otter.  

The long-awaited return of the Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center’s otter habitat in the Aquarium’s South Building, which recently underwent a $28 million renovation and expansion and officially reopened to the public on Jan. 14, was nostalgic for me and brought forth a warm reminiscence to this pleasant memory of my childhood. I couldn’t wait to check it out. 

During a recent media tour I attended before the public opening, it did not disappoint. Entering the South Building’s welcome area, I was immediately captivated by the illuminating blown glass “Jellies,” created in partnership with the Chrysler Museum of Art, that hang in the entryway. The ocean blue wall that reads “Inspire” also sets the tone for the Aquarium’s conservation mission. 

Holding nearly 20,000 gallons of water and home to more than a dozen species, the new South Building, welcomes adults and children alike to a truly immersive experience. 

Here are a few highlights of what to expect if you visit:

Animals & Species

The new and improved Otter Habitat features two North American River Otters and is located right next to the new Otter Bay Café, which serves convenient grab-and-go bites by Gourmet Gang. Both the café and the otter exhibit are accessible to the public without an entrance ticket. The Jellies Gallery contains many different species, such as Lion’s Mane Jellies, Upside-down Jellies, Moon Jellies and Pacific Sea Nettle, and a touch pool. Yes, you read that right—you can physically touch some Jellies! A Giant Pacific Octopus, Flamboyant Cuttlefish and Garden Eels are just a few of the many creatures you can find in the Undersea Superpowers Gallery, which spotlights the “superheroes and villains” of the marine world in a fun and colorful way.

Learning & Playing

The new South Building is extremely child-friendly as it’s geared toward educational play, imagination and exploration. With a sensory play area, interactive exhibits and an outdoor Watershed Play Area, there is plenty to keep kids actively entertained. The Windows Into Animal Care unit allows guests to look into the windows of the Aquarium’s Conservation Projects, Veterinary Care and Water Quality Lab, meaning the public can see real-life animal operations, water testing and more. Young learners can also play in the Animal Discover Exhibit, where they can pretend to be a veterinarian or field biologist.

Inspiring Conservation

Conservation of the marine environment is a major focus throughout the South Building. The experience is purposefully designed to bring awareness to the impact and responsibility we have as humans on the environment. Each exhibit has different components built in that showcase how our actions can either positively or negatively impact marine biology and provides resources that strengthen conservation efforts throughout the region.

“It’s more than a facility,” says Cynthia Spanoulis, President and CEO of the Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center. “It’s a place for people to really be engaged in the marine environment, to be inspired [and to] gather and have fun.” 

While six-year-old me is secretly jealous not to experience these playful designs with a child’s mind, I’m excited to bring my niece and nephew to enjoy the magic that the renovation and expansion brings in a place that inspires all, no matter the age. And, on the way out the door, I’ll stop in the gift shop to get them their very own otters, too.

The South Building is located south of the Aquarium’s main building on General Booth Blvd. and is accessible by walking the Nature Trail or by using the south parking lot, which is shared by The Adventure Park. 

Learn more or get tickets at virginiaaquarium.com

KT
Kelsey Thomas
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