“That is soooo cool!”  “I’ve never seen anything like it!”  “Those are real!??”

I was touring Ripley’s Aquarium here in Toronto with my 6 and 8 year old niece and nephew, when I overheard these comments coming from just behind me. Funny thing was, these exclamations of wonder weren’t coming from the kids – they were coming from three 20-something men who were staring into the same tank we were, completely amazed at the magical sea dragons floating by in front of us. I couldn’t help but smile at their reaction, because they were saying out loud exactly what I was thinking, exclamation points and all.

As a land-locked Northern Ontario native, growing up I didn’t get a lot of exposure to the underwater world of exotic marine life, unless of course you count the Jacques Cousteau documentaries we all watched on our two-channel television in the 60s and 70s. (Which may explain why I am not a big fan of going underwater myself.)

But I couldn’t help but feel like a curious kid again when I got to see some of those exotic ‘Cousteau creatures’ mere inches away from me on the other side of a glass wall. And exotic they were, from the magical jellyfish, seahorses and sea dragons that were my favourite (and my young niece’s), to the colourful tangs darting in and out of a living landscape of coral, to the menacing blade of the sawfish resting overhead on the top of the glass tunnel in the Aquarium’s Dangerous Lagoon.

sawfish

Don’t let that little ‘smile’ fool you – this guy lives in Dangerous Lagoon for a reason: the teeth on this sawfish’s rostrum (nose extension) are razor-sharp and give him the nickname carpenter shark.

Here is a little photo sampling of some of the galleries and their residents (just a few since it’s not easy getting images in a dark place with moving targets!)

One of the first things that greets you when you enter the Aquarium is this giant suspended skeleton of a rather ominous-looking fellow – or rather, what’s left of him. Fortunately, this 20-foot predator is extinct, because I believe that anything this large should be given a wide berth underwater, especially when intact.

skeleton fish

Prehistoric Ziphactinus killer fish

 A little further along, a huge 2-story tank holds thousands of swirling fish moving up and down the vertical tank like a fishy waterspout…which makes me wonder who decides when it’s time to switch direction of this silvery cyclone?

fish cyclone

Which direction are the fish flying in this silvery cyclone?

As you move through the Rainbow Reef, and other galleries in the building, there are some familiar faces, thanks to Pixar…

Finding Nemo

Found him! (Nemo doing his best to hide in some colourful coral)

…and some not-so-familiar faces. In fact, a few faces only a mother could love:

Moray eel

Ew. Just, ew.

 

Pretty, no. Weird, yes. But at least this little guy is, well, little.

Pretty, no. Weird, yes. But at least this little guy is, well, little.

Having been to the aquarium in Maui where I first got to walk through a glass tunnel surrounded by fish on all sides, I was really hoping that Toronto’s version would have a similar tunnel, and Ripley’s does it well: like the escalator etiquette we know so well from taking transit, if you want to walk slowly or stop, you can choose the right side of the tunnel where you can pause and stare in wonder for as long as you like, as manta rays swim around and above you. Or you can hop aboard the moving sidewalk on the left, which moves you slowly along the edge of the giant tank as you watch schools of fish, sea turtles and other prey outswim the slowly circling predators inside.

This is as close as I plan to get to a shark (with several inches of glass in between)

This is as close as I plan to get to a shark (with several inches of glass in between)

Even though I chose to visit the aquarium on a busy Sunday, I still found certain galleries surprisingly serene – like the underwater Pacific Kelp tank where you couldn’t help but feel like you were standing at the base of a gently swaying underwater forest.

kelp fish

A wave maker simulates ocean surge – creating a peaceful, rhythmic ambiance in the Pacific Kelp Exhibit.

But my favourite exhibits had to be The Gallery, and Planet Jellies, where some of the most exotic animals were featured.

Jellyfish appeared to change colour, as coloured lights overhead were reflected in their transparent membranes.

Jellyfish appeared to change colour, as coloured lights overhead were reflected in their transparent membranes.

Even their names reflected their unique features: the Lionfish, with its fanned-out spines and hairy ‘mane’, the mysterious moon jellyfish, or the jaw-droppingly beautiful sea dragons, which looked like a cross between a kelp plant and a seahorse.

A delicate and beautiful Weedy Sea Dragon.

A delicate and beautiful Weedy Sea Dragon.

The Leafy Sea Dragons’ grace and elegance made them even more fantastical, as they seemed to move in a slow motion waltz with each other. It’s no wonder the young men nearby were as entranced with them as I was.

Leaving Ripley’s Aquarium on this high note, I couldn’t help but feel grateful that Toronto now boasts an attraction of this calibre, giving other landlubbers like me the opportunity to get an up-close look at some of Earth’s most beautiful and interesting underwater life.

Because I think there’s a little Jacques Cousteau in all of us.

Halloween jellyfish 2013

Henk and I dressed for Halloween in 2013. It’s no wonder I liked the jellyfish exhibit.

TIP: If you’d like to learn more about Ripley’s Aquarium in Toronto, visit their website. (And if you want to save $5, plan to go after 7pm.)

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