The Seattle Aquarium offers a glimpse into aquatic life in Puget Sound and in the ocean beyond. After a brief closure due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the aquarium is open again with many health and safety restrictions in place.
My kids and I were excited to visit this iconic site, located right on Seattle’s waterfront and adjacent to popular attractions, restaurants, food stands and ferries. Our outing did not disappoint. Small group sizes and limited ticketing made the visit an intimate experience and a day trip that we would recommend for all ages.
For my two children, it was the “best day ever, Mom!”
The diver, sea life and the intimate experience
As we entered the large building, we were greeted by staff and volunteers and invited to take a group picture (available for purchase later at a kiosk). We went on to view an impressive exhibit — basically, the biggest tank that we have seen in some time. The 120,000-gallon floor-to-ceiling display tank called Window on Washington Waters is filled with salmon, rockfish, wolf eels, sea stars, anemones, urchins and coral — all indigenous to Washington’s seascape. The display mimics the waters of Neah Bay, located on the northwest tip of Washington.
On this particular trip, we were fortunate to see the diver presentation. Gracefully gliding in the water, the diver held a red bag filled with feed, coaxing the elusive wolf eels out of their rock caves. She gently “petted” each creature passing by. A staff member spoke to visitors outside the tank and asked the audience for questions.
Several hands shot up in the air. Almost every group stood at a distance, by the window of the exhibit. (There were several graphics on the ground indicating a 6-foot distance, which we all tried to keep.)
After the question-and-answer session, the rest of the audience dispersed, but we hung back to observe the fish and ask more questions.
“Would this tank ever break?”
“Why was the diver cleaning the exhibit?”
“What are those animals sticking to the window?”
“Why does the fish only have one eye?” Those were just some of the questions my kids asked.
Taking our time around the exhibits made for a wonderful experience. It was like we had the whole aquarium all to ourselves.
The giant Pacific octopus, touch stations and Ring of Life
As you turn the corner, you’ll find a simulation of water currents. Be sure to look for the fish swimming back and forth, some fighting the rush of water, while others gather in groups on one side.
As you pass the gift shop, follow the path to enter a large and chilly room. (All doors remain open to provide good air circulation.) We found the ever-popular touch stations, but, because of COVID rules, we could only see with our eyes and not with our hands. You can step up to the rock exhibits (covered in plastic and wiped down periodically) to watch tiny fish swim around. Observe the waving pink and green anemones, spy the hermit crab skittering away, and look out for chitons and limpets.
We weren’t allowed to touch the creatures. Volunteers shared information about many of the animals and their habits and habitats. We learned that the animals had flourished during the Seattle Aquarium’s brief closure. They became very active in their tide pools.
On a quiet, less crowded day, you’re likely to see a lot more movement from these little creatures.
“Oh, look! The colors are changing and they’re just going around and around!”
We had gotten to the Ring of Life — the moon jelly exhibit. Through the glass we could see their tendrils pushing against the water, with their umbrella-shape heads propelling them around the circle. The kids challenged each other to follow one jellyfish all the way around the ring – a very tricky game to play!
Near the jellyfish, in a separate exhibit, the giant Pacific octopus lay sleeping, camouflaged to look like its exhibit. We kneeled down to observe the legs, layered on top of one another, suctioned to the window.
We had recently seen a Netflix documentary called “My Octopus Teacher,” which spurred many questions about this beautiful creature. On a more active day, you can watch this invertebrate squeeze through a tunnel into the next enclosure, watch it change color and see it interact with the other creatures in the exhibit.
Tropical fish of the Pacific Ocean
Next the path led us to a beautiful collection of glowing tropical fish, corals, various types of jellyfish, another octopus, seahorses and of course, Nemo look-alikes! There were many beautiful clownfish swimming in the hairs of an anemone, each a near duplicate of the hero of the Disney movie “Finding Nemo.”
We found it more difficult to stay distanced in this area because of the smaller space and the darker lighting. If you’re feeling uncomfortable, the path forks, right before this exhibit, allowing you to skip this portion of the aquarium and see more of the open-space exhibits.
Birds, seals, and otters
We headed outside and through double doors to visit the marine mammals. Birds tweeted their greetings while we walked past this netted enclosure. We watched the black oystercatcher dunk its bright orange beak into the water. Hearing its call, my two boys imitated the song with some interaction back and forth — and lots of giggles in between.
Next, we saw the northern fur seal swimming gracefully through the water, then the sea otters in another exhibit, brushing their fur, drifting on their backs. “So cute!”
One of them made its way to the exhibit’s window, smooshing its face against the glass and resting at the water’s edge.
The harbor seals lay on their bellies, basking in the sun. Hop, hop, hop! Another jumped onto the platform, rolling its way over to the glass. We hadn’t seen one so close before and it was truly a treat to see its smooth fur and the whiskers too, curiously intertwined with the wisps of its own eyebrows.
Be sure to spend a few moments outdoors, sitting at the benches, observing the seals. It’s a nice spot to rest and give little legs a break.
The river otters were missing from their exhibit, but it was fun to catch the spray off of their loud rushing waterfall and see what they like to play with. (Think plastic water tubs and plastic toys).
Salmon and underwater dome
If you’re from Washington, then you know how important salmon is to the environment (and to our diets). Don’t miss the salmon exhibit, where we learned more about the life cycle — from egg to alevin to fry to yearling.
The underwater dome — a favorite place for visitors to explore — is a unique exhibit, giving a 360-degree snapshot of Puget Sound’s deep waters. Sharks, rockfish, skates, salmon and lingcod drift through the water. Take a seat on one of the many benches that surround this area and try out a game of I Spy.
We ended our visit with a choice: See our favorite exhibits again or go to the gift shop. And we did both.
“I want to see the big tank at the front!” both boys said. We needed to exit the building and re-enter from the front to see this exhibit again, after speaking to staff members along the way to alert others we were coming back in.
It was worth the effort to see it again. And a staff member let us in on a little secret: If we were able to be alone (without crowds) with the northern fur seal, we could move one arm in a big circle a few times, and the seal would turn circles in the water!
We didn’t have much luck with this experiment, but it was fun to trek back and see the animals once again.
What did my kids think? “I just loved everything about this day!” both said. It was exactly what I needed to hear, assuring a return trip to the Seattle Aquarium very soon.
Once you’re outside the Seattle Aquarium, don’t miss exploring the waterfront. Pier 62 offers a large area to run around, with great views of the water and ships in the distance. You can head over to the Great Wheel for a view of Seattle from the sky or grab a meal of fish and chips from the nearby Ivar’s or Anthony’s.
Ticketing, safety restrictions and parking
- Up to 60 tickets are allotted for timed entry to the aquarium. Reserving tickets online is the best option for securing a spot.
- A limited number of tickets are available at the door for purchase.
- Weekday afternoons are often quieter, with fewer patrons in the building.
- Prices are listed on the website.
- The Seattle Aquarium is open daily, 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. The last entry is at 5 p.m. and exhibits close at 6 p.m.
- Visitors are encouraged to stay 6 feet apart and follow the one-way path to see all the exhibits.
- Leave yourself extra time to find a spot or choose to pay a little more for covered parking.
- Get up to three hours of free parking at the Pike Place Market garage. Ask for a parking voucher from aquarium guest services as you enter. Visit seattlewaterfront.org for details.
- Additional parking information can be found on the aquarium’s directions and parking page.
- Masks are required for all adults and children. (Babies and toddlers are exempt.)
- Hand-sanitizing stations are located throughout the building.
- Bathrooms are open and limited to small groups.
- The Seattle Aquarium’s café is currently open Thursday to Sunday from 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. at 25% capacity.
- Outside food is welcome and must be eaten in designated locations.
- Fountains are off, but water-fill stations are open.
- The Seattle Aquarium is stroller-friendly. Wheelchairs can be borrowed for free.
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