The Seattle Aquarium offers a glimpse into aquatic life in Puget Sound and in the ocean beyond.
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 and we’d recommend this trip for all ages. For my two children, it was the “best day ever, Mom!”
The diver, sea life and the informative 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 eager hands shot up into the air.
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. We found the ever-popular touch stations. Volunteers will assist you with the two-finger touch as kids (and adults) reach into the cool water to gently pet sea stars, sea cucumbers, and more. You can step up to the rock exhibits to watch tiny fish swim around too. Observe the waving pink and green anemones, spy the hermit crab skittering away, and look out for chitons and limpets. Pro tip: Dress in layers and wear short sleeves – no one wants a rolled-up, wet sleeve for the rest of the afternoon.
Volunteers shared information about many of the animals, their habits, and habitats. It’s a great time to ask questions and practice a gentle touch with the sea animals.
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-shaped 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.
Caring Cove Play Space
Before you reach the next exhibit, kids will flock to the Caring Cove Play Space, an area of the museum especially set up so children can indulge in imaginative play, learning, and empathy. Pretend to be a biologist, a veterinarian, an interpreter or something else their heart desires. Your little scientists may dress up in the proper attire, provided by the Aquarium, and then borrow a stuffed animal to take care of- the otters, octopus, fish and more to choose from. Take the animal for a check-up at the vet station, then move to the kitchen for a make-believe lunch. Next, provide enrichment for your animal with a made-up or real game, then rest and relax with a book before moving to the next exhibit. There’s even an opportunity to pretend-play in an artificial touch tank. Practice the two-finger touch just like you would at the real exhibit. Great for toddlers and up to 10-years-old, kids will learn how to care for other creatures, while practicing empathy in a fun and safe environment.
Tropical fish of the Pacific Ocean
Next, we followed the hallway down the path that 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.”
Keep watch over your littles, it gets dark in there and you might lose your own Little Nemo for a brief moment.
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 on 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 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.
If you go:
- Tickets to the aquarium are through timed entry. 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 the quietest 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.
- 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 not required
- Hand-sanitizing stations and hand-washing stations are available around the building
- The Seattle Aquarium cafe is open: 9:30 a.m. – 4:00 p.m.
- Outside food is welcome and must be eaten in designated locations.
- The Seattle Aquarium is stroller-friendly. Wheelchairs can be borrowed for free.
This article was originally published in 2021 and updated in May 2023