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Mom Review: The Aquarium of Niagara

If you haven’t been to the Aquarium of Niagara recently, now might be the perfect time to check it out. It has a special new resident, a dedicated staff and big plans for the future.

My husband and I brought our two little ones on a recent Saturday afternoon. We were impressed, moved by what we saw and our girls had a ball. I’ve been to the aquarium quite a few times, but it has been a while. It doesn’t look much different, it’s not bigger or flashier. But, it feels different.

The sea lion show is a popular attraction at the Aquarium of Niagara. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

We arrived just in time for the sea lion show – held weekends at 10:30 a.m., 12:30, 2:30 and 4 p.m. The show, featuring Kia and Ari was entertaining. For starters, there is not a bad seat in the house. You can see from the top ring of the sea lion pool. The trainers, Ana Mau and Brockton Malenke, were amazing. They gave the commands and each one was followed.

From clapping to jumping in the air to catching rings, the sea lions had the crowd roaring with delight. Katie Stahl was there with her 2-year-old daughter, Victoria. They came from Batavia and said it was well worth the drive. “We like it. It is a lot of fun. I didn’t think she would like it this much. She just keeps saying she wants to see it again and again. It’s really nice,” Katie said.

The show lasted about 30 minutes. There was a very moving part when Ana swam with Ari. They were in sync and seemed very connected. They were hugging and rubbing noses. It was remarkable and very emotional. Tammy Weber is the assistant supervisor of animal training and said the Aquarium of Niagara is one of only a few places in the northeast where the trainers swim with the sea lions. “It’s very special for us to do that. To have that bond,” Weber said.

You can tell the animals are well cared for and loved.

Della, a blind gray seal, is fed by Tammy Weber, assistant supervisor of Marine Mammals, at the Aquarium of Niagara Falls. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

The sea lions may be the stars of the aquarium, but the gray seals run a close second. They are a bit more reserved and held in an outside exhibit. That’s where the newest resident lives – her name is Della, and it’s easy to see why she’s making such a splash at her new home. The 25-year-old, 310-pound gray seal was brought to Niagara Falls from the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago.

Della is blind, but don’t feel bad for her. She is feisty and has learned to use her senses of touch and smell. Her trainers also serve as her eyes in many ways. She loves rubdowns and eating (she eats about 9 pounds of fish each day).  Della gets along swimmingly with her new roomies, fitting in perfectly.

If you’ve ever wanted to get up close and personal with the seals, sea lions or penguins – you can. I tagged along as the trainers fed the seals. Guests get within feet of the beautiful and majestic creatures. You can have a 20-minute session with an opportunity to touch, feed and even play with one of the seals for $45 ($39 for members). Participants must be at least 8 years old.

If you would rather hang out with a sea lion, that 30-minute guided tour is $10 ($8 for members). You must be at least 6 years old to participate. Maybe a 20-minute session with the penguins is more for you? For $65 per person ($55 for members) you can interact with the birds and learn all about them.

These opportunities really seal the deal and make the Aquarium of Niagara a hands-on experience. You learn quite a bit, too, like what the animals eat, how much they each weight, what they like and don’t like. One fun tidbit I learned: the staff makes little fish-shaped gelatin snacks for the animals.

I wouldn’t call the place big. Perhaps intimate. It’s fairly easy to see everything in an hour or so. There is a  shark exhibit, sea horse exhibit and a very popular penguin exhibit – which the aquarium is raising money to expand. So far, $2 million of the more than $3 million needed for a new habitat has been raised.

One problem that they might want to address is the entrance. There are two sets of stairs to climb to get in – one up and one down. It makes it a bit tough for those pushing strollers or for folks in wheelchairs. There is a handicap entrance, but it is on another side of the building – not near the parking lot.

Still, it is a nice, quiet and calming atmosphere.  The parking is free, and prices are reasonable. There is a gift shop with souvenirs selling from $1.99 and up. You also will find plenty of knowledgeable and professional staffers  to answer questions or give you neat fun facts about their animals.  It’s impressive to see how committed the staff is to explaining conservation and telling the crowd - especially the kids - how important it is to care about the environment. They talk about what trash does to the water and to the animals and empower the crowd to make a difference.

Aquarium of Niagara

701 Whirlpool St., Niagara Falls

Hours: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily.

Admission: $13 for adults, $9 for children 3-12 and under 2 is free.

Info: aquariumofniagara.org

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