Mystic Aquarium and Mystic Seaport
August 18, 2005

Karen wanted to do something a little different for an excursion, so on a beautiful, sunny and mild Thursday we drove two hours south for our first trip to Mystic, Connecticut. Our first stop was the Mystic Aquarium. It was extremely easy to find; the highway exit emptied into its parking lot. We arrived at about 9:30 in the morning and the parking lot had very few cars in it. The building was brash and colorful, with lots of purple and blue and oddly-shaped walls, some angular and some cylindrical. We parked in front of the entrance, which featured a sort of radiating semi-circular canopy of metal trusses above the ticket booths. I realized at that point I had left my camera at home. In a way it was good, because otherwise I would have spent all my time snapping pictures. Instead I just relaxed with Karen and enjoyed the sights.

I thought the entry fee was a bit steep ($19.95), but Karen had her Big Y Supermarket card which got each of us $2 off. We could hear the booming amplified voice of a female trainer in the distance working with whales. We walked onto the circular entryway. It didn't look like there was much to the place. To our extreme left was a gift shop and the small Waterfront Cafe, which was completely empty. Next to that was a large shallow rectangular pool. At the back of the pool was a mock-up of the bow of a large ship, and sitting on the bow was one of Robert Ballard's deep sea exploration subs, a large white bubble that looked like a pod from Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey." Behind that was a raised platform with stairs on either side and a large sign that read, "Challenge of the Deep."

In front of us was an information booth, and beyond that was a small white tent with the sign, "Ray Touch Pool." To the right of that was a walkway that led to the darkened entrance of a very large building. To our right was what appeared to be a sparklingly clear manmade lake, with many levels of rock and waterfalls. The rock (poured concrete, I assume) was formed into arches, so we couldn't see the whole lake from where we were.

As we stared at our map, it was evident that this wasn't just an aquarium in the conventional sense. It was a sizeable park that happened to have some aquariums in it. There were basically eight zones. To our left was the Challenge of the Deep. In front of us in the big building were the Sunlit Seas and the Marine Theater. The lake to our right was the Alaskan Coast. Beyond that out of view were the Marsh Walk, Pribilof Islands and the Roger Tory Peterson Penguin Exhibit. There were also the Seal Rescue Clinic and the Aquatic Animal Study Center, which weren't open to the public.

We began our exploration with the Ray Touch Pond, the four-foot-deep long rectangular pool in front of us under the white tent. Several families were gathered around it. The bottom of the pool was filled with fine sand. About a dozen cow-nosed rays were swimming gracefully, their dark grayish-brown backs starkly contrasting with the white sand. They averaged probably one-and-a-half feet wide. A park employee wearing a headset microphone asked for questions from the onlookers and answered them, usually beginning with, "Good question!" This was one thing that struck me all through our visit: every employee was exceptionally knowledgeable and friendly. Any question I asked was answered cheerfully and confidently. I really got the sense that the Mystic Aquarium staff was extremely well-trained not only in marine biology, but in public relations as well.

The woman at the ray pool told us not to splash or reach for the rays, but to simply place our hands on the surface of the water. The animals were very curious, and would come to see what was there. (These rays couldn't sting.) So Karen did as she was told, and sure enough one of the rays swam right over to her palm and she petted its back. It swam off and soon another approached, its long whip-like tail trailing behind.

We walked over to the lake. There were thick plexiglass walls between the rock structures which allowed a view into the water. In the middle of the lake, a large white creature arched up out of the water and then plunged back in. There were three large baby beluga whales frolicking around. The lake had different levels and three containment areas toward the back, which all had opened gates so the whales could freely swim about. We watched them for a while, amazed at how fluid their movements were for creatures that large.

Then we headed into the Sunlit Seas building. It couldn't have had a more ironic name. We opened the door and seemed to be greeted by total darkness. As our eyes adjusted, we could see we were standing in a sort of square foyer in the middle of which was a large cylindrical plexiglass tank containing several small transluscent pink jellyfish illuminated by blacklights. It was a really eerie sight, watching the diaphonous creatures undulate past each other. To our left, the foyer opened up into a large exhibit hall. I was amazed how vast it was. It was almost as dimly illuminated as the foyer. Along the curving walls were dozens upon dozens of display cases with live exhibits ranging from catfish to coral, from iguanas to fruit bats. Every display featured extensive accompanying text explaining what we were looking at. There were many sections that offered blatant messages of preservation and conservation. We got to pet a baby alligator. We stared in amazement at a massive central display featuring a wide assortment of colorful coral reef life, from sea anemonea to starfish. One tank in particular attracted multitudes of kids who shouted, "There's Nemo! There's Dory!" One large display featured a school of piranha. Most of them were floating completely still. There was a section that had a floor-to-ceiling concave plexiglass wall. Karen and I walked over to it. A piranha was inches from our faces, floating there silently. We felt like we were standing underwater with the fish. We spent close to an hour just walking through that one building. It was fascinating.

We eventually walked out the building's side door, next to an ice cream parlor. I got a root beer float and Karen got a waffle cone. We could hear the beluga whale show starting again, so we walked back over to the lakeside. For an extra $20, guests could don wetsuits and stand with the trainers in the water, learning how to make the whales do tricks. The whales acted much like dolphins, spinning around and jumping on command. What I found more impressive was the range of expressive sounds the whales had (all eminating from their blow-hole). The commentator said that the beluga was the "canary of the sea." At times, they sounded more like foghorns. But you could almost tell what the whales' attitudes were by the sounds they made.

Next we strolled along the Marsh Walk, a nicely landscaped boardwalk at the back of the park that meanders among cattails. A few ducks were floating about. The area was peaceful but seemed unfinished. The Marsh Walk eventually brought us to the Penguin Exhibit. This was the newest area of the park. It was a modest sized pool with rock outcroppings. within it, about a dozen small cute penguins were splashing about. Once again the staff member was very friendly and knowledgeable. With the penguins literally inches from us, with just the lip of the tank between them and the guests, the staff member had to keep warning kids to keep their hands out of the pool because the penguins would bite them. There probably should have been signs to warn people.

We moved on toward the Pribilof Island section. There were two large pools containing sea lions lazily swimming about or sunning themselves. We watched them for a while and continued following the path we were on. It led past a deserted rock wall and down to the other side of the beluga lake. This section looked like the edge of a beach. Large dead trees were piled up where water lapped at the shore. It probably was an entry point if equipment had to be brought in to remove the multi-ton whales. The path sloped downward and eventually we were standing in front of a plexiglass wall and looking directly into the lake water, the top of which was level with my head. From seemingly out of nowhere, a bright white male beluga swam right past our faces, inches away. It was an impressive sight. We stood there for quite a while, watching the three whales swimming past us.

The final section to explore was Challenge of the Deep. It was a bit confusing; it appeared to be a motion simulator that we had to pay an extra charge for. But the simulator was a separate section. The exhibit itself was included. We easily could have spent several hours in there. It mostly dealt with Robert Ballard's discoveries and the technologies he used. There was an entire complex completely devoted to the Titanic, including an incredibly detailed 18-foot model of the ship. There were four different videos playing about different aspects of the Titanic wreckage discovery. There were mockups of various rooms within the ship. There was a blow-by-blow account of what happened during the ship's final two hours. There were other rooms devoted to other wrecks that had been found, including a Phoenecian ship over two thousand years old.

We headed back out into the sunlight. The park had gotten a lot more crowded. It was about 12:30 by that point and we really wanted to see Mystic Seaport as well. I was amazed at how much there was to do at Mystic Aquarium! We reluctantly elbowed our way out through the gift shop. The parking lot looked completely full.

We drove across the street. Karen want to explore Old Mystic Village, a collection of quaint shops. They were a more rustic version of a typical outlet mall. Most were crammed with stock images of ships and lighthouses. One specializing in kites was a bit odd. When we walked in, a girl behind the counter greeted us too cheerily and blew bubbles in our face with a toy they were selling. Then a guy behind the counter started loudly lecturing an elderly woman on why she absolutely had to buy the most expensive kite in his store. There was a Christmas shop that feature black Christmas trees for Halloween. We stopped into an Army-Navy store and bought a few things for our son, who's in Iraq. And lastly, we found a little shop with some interesting trinkets, where I bought Karen a beautiful hand-carved miniature wooden piano for $25.

Driving out of those shops and getting back on to Route 1 was a bit confusing. But soon we were heading down the street and in a few moments had found the parking area for Mystic Seaport. I had heard about this famous "living museum" but wasn't sure what to expect. I was under the impression it was basically a wharf with a couple of ships. I was surprised to find a Visitor's Center for an entrance. That always meant one thing: a gate fee. We parked right near the entrance (for free). Sure enough, there was a charge of $17 each to enter the seaport. Luckily, Karen's Big Y card again got us $2 discounts. They placed a bright pink armband on each of our wrists and we walked out onto the dirt path. It really felt like we were back in the 1800s. The buildings were authentic. The boats were authentic. The granite and cobblestone sidewalks were too. There was the faint whiff of burning coal from the Sabino steamboat. The only thing to destroy the illusion was a row of large ugly modern condos across the bay.

In front of us was the L.A.Dunton, a tall ship. We boarded it and looked around, viewing the crew quarters below deck. We then walked past the village commons where there was a demonstration of a rescue from a sinking ship. There were over fifty exhibits, all clearly numbered. "Exhibits" ranged from the boats to old homes perfectly preserved to a new children's museum. There didn't seem to be many people walking around, but the seaport area was vast. (It was, after all, a preserved shipyard and village.) Every building had extensive information to go along with it. I found it fascinating. For example, there was a bank made entirely of stone (the only such structure in the village). Inside was a small vault of thick granite. The information mentioned that the stone wasn't to prevent break-ins; it was to sheild against fire. It also mentioned that until the federal goverment standardized money in the 1800s, there were about 16,000 different types of currency in use in the U.S.

We walked from one building into another, from churches to apothecaries. Each one was as fascinating as the next. Unfortunately, the staff inside the buildings didn't seem nearly as knowledgeable as those at Mystic Aquarium. My favorite building was the Nautical Instrument Shop, which was filled with dozens of ancient working clocks and navigating tools. When I asked some questions about some of the equipment, the woman opened a manual and simply read it to me. Some of the clocks were amazing. One had wooden gears and was still keeping time. The woman said the clocks were being maintained by a 90-year-old man, and she feared that when he no longer was able do it, all of the clocks would cease to work. That would be a tremendous loss.

We explored a large whaling ship, the Charles W. Morgan (built in 1841). Karen marvelled at the stacked bunk beds, which seemed too small to hold a person. We gaped at the amazing wood carvings in the Figureheads Exhibit, giant statues that used to be on the bow of ships. There was also a large scale model of the entire seaport. After nearly three hours our feet were wearing out, and we had only covered 1/3 of the exhibits. A vendor was selling fresh-squeezed lemonade, so we each got one. They used an old metal lemon press and squeezed the lemon juice into our cups. It was really tart and delicious!

But we were exhausted from all the walking we had done. Karen and I didn't want to go, but we knew we wouldn't hold up much longer. Both the Aquarium and the Seaport tickets allowed a return visit on the next day, which was a really good deal. Unfortunately that wasn't an option for us. But our money was certainly well-spent, and we'll definitely return some other day.

We left the seaport and headed north on Route 1. I was curious about the attraction labeled "Mystic Carousel and Fun Center." It was just on the north side of Route 95, a big non-descript yellow building. There were only a couple of cars in the parking lot. I knew at that point that we wouldn't find a classic wooden merry-go-round. We pulled open the front door and walked through a cramped, cluttered hallway. I could hear a recording of a band organ, one of the same Wurlitzer rolls used on the Holyoke Merry-Go-Round. We passed by a darkened room on the left that had a long table with party hats on it. On the right looked like a cheap novelty shop. The hallway opened up onto a large space. To the right was the carousel, which appeared to be a standard Chance portable fiberglass model. It looked a bit too cramped where it was. In front of us was a small circular tracked kiddie ride themed with pigs. Beyond that was a "maze," a small plastic playscape for kids. Karen and I simply turned around and walked out. We left Mystic at about 5:30. I highly recommend a trip there. I was pleasantly surprised by what we found, and there was certainly plenty to do for all ages. Who would have thought that marine biology or history could be so much fun!

Return to Karen and Jay's Excursions