The water was chilly, and swimming along the sides of the pool were a handful of cownose stingrays. If we placed our hand flat near the surface, the exhibit supervisor told us, the fish would come up for a little pet. And, sure enough, a few did. Their smooth surface was kind of icky, and it wasn’t until I read the little information card near the exhibit did I read that I was feeling their mucous layer that protects them from bacteria. Ewe.
But it was my fault. This was Connecticut’s Mystic Aquarium after all and I was visiting their brand new Weird and Wonderful exhibit. If you thought you knew all the kooky things that swim in the ocean from watching Finding Nemo movies, think again. While the beluga whales and sea lions are a must-see at any aquarium with scheduled shows throughout the day, it was the exhibit of jellyfish that, for me, was the main event. The way they reflect light, glow, and drift through the water so serenely, like nature’s own lava-lamp, is captivating. Plus, the variety of these rarely-seen jellies was just another example that there is so much to this world that we don’t know.
With the kid-friendly explanations, colorful décor, and lots of hands on activities, the Aquarium has always been a popular destination. The new hands-on learning exhibit, called the “crane game” is the one that will have the kids lining up for turns. Like those games at arcades where one can drop a claw to grasp a toy, this claw will grab debris and garbage from the specially created life-like pond. Imagine maneuvering the claw so that it will drop down over the discarded orange flip flop, pick it up in its claw fingers, and dump it into the garbage where it belongsl! The exhibit was created in partnership with Covanta, a waste management company, says Katie Cubina, the aquarium’s Senior VP of Mission Programs, one of which is to teach ocean stewardship.
I took the opportunity to ask if we were doing better keeping our oceans clean. “We are doing better in some regards,” she says. “For example, the Clean Water Act of 1970 has resulted in lakes, rivers and streams that are infinitely cleaner, more fishable and swimmable. A major issue for the oceans today is the volume of plastics, particularly the single-use plastics that make their way into waterways and oceans, and may break down into microplastics that can persist in the environment for hundreds of years. Mystic Aquarium has participated in two social media consumer campaigns, one local and one national, to try to encourage people to reduce or eliminate their use of certain single-use plastics, encouraging them to ‘skip the straw,’ bring their own reusable bags instead of using plastic bags, and using a refillable water bottle.”
When we learn that Cubina’s passion for conservation began when she was probably the same age as the kids who will jump at the chance to clean up the pond, we’re reminded that these kinds of learning experiences can have a lasting effect, and may lay the seeds for a career later on. While the aquarium’s mission is simple: to inspire people, and move them to action, but these are the words that inspire Cubina:
“In the end, we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand, and we will understand only what we are taught.” Baba Dioum, internationally renowned environmentalist
Mystic Aquarium is located just off Exit 90 in I-95, 10 miles east of New London. Free Parking. For hours of operation and schedule of events, visit the website for the Mystic Aquarium.