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100 Things Every Western New Yorker Should Do At Least Once: Visit the Aquarium of Niagara

Something is fishy about the Aquarium of Niagara, something that makes it an unusual destination, possibly unique. Until last week, I did not realize what it was.

In a town of tourist attractions, it was originally designed not for visitors but for research.

A bunch of scientists got together in 1965 and built this thing so they could study salt water life. That helps explain why it is so surreally compact – a mod, glassed-in circle that looks, at first glance, to be barely bigger than a backyard pool.

And why it sits not near the falls itself, like other attractions, but off in its own neighborhood. Officially, the Aquarium’s address is 701 Whirlpool St., but it’s easier to find if you locate Third Street and just keep driving. You think you’re heading just into a residential area, and then … oh look. There it is.

Parking is free. Admission is cheap. An outdoor exhibit hints at what you’ll find inside. But really, you can’t imagine these creatures.

The sturgeon, strangely haunting, looks primitive as a dinosaur. Sure enough, it is in fact closely related to that vanished race.

“We’ve had him forever,” said Gay Molnar, the Aquarium’s executive director. Sturgeon have an average lifespan of almost 60 years. Could this guy be original to the Aquarium?

An electric eel, frowning mournfully, glides inches from your nose. And hark, there’s the shark, zipping this way and that. Take a moment to get into the vintage people cage that sits outside the shark tank. A shark suspended from the ceiling looks as if it’s heading straight at you.

The new year is the perfect time to greet the penguins in their black tie.

“Look at THIS!” A grandfather hoists his granddaughter up to the glass. In her poofy skirt, she looks as formal as the penguin. The two small creatures study each other, nose to nose.

So compact is the Aquarium that you can really get close to these denizens of distant oceans. Nothing can elude your gaze, not even the tiny, haunting cavefish. Over eons of swimming around in pitch-black caves, the cavefish decided they had no more need for sight. They can’t see you. But you can see them.

After watching those cavefish flickering around their dark tank, it’s a jolt to turn and behold the neighboring coral reef exhibit, a riot of coral, green and lavender. The fish there are like splashes of poster paint – yellow, cobalt blue, even orange with fins of fuchsia.

Seahorses, sharp-toothed sawfish, tiny poison frogs, pancake-thin stingrays, nocturnal soldierfish and squirrelfish – the Aquarium has some 2,000 species that will dart into your dreams long after you have left. And wherever you roam in this sometimes vicious circle, you are aware of the round central sea lion pool. Their barks echo. Yorp. Yorp!

Don’t miss the sea lion show. It has improved over recent years, and it’s slick and professional. On cue, one of the big slippery beasts jumps out of the water, rises and hugs the trainer from behind. Then the trainer, in her wetsuit, dives into the pool for synchronized swimming. It’s all splashy and fun – and you can watch from up close.

You can see the Aquarium in a couple of hours. Spend the rest of your day as we did. Grab lunch at an ethnic restaurant, and check out another Niagara Falls must-see, the Robert Moses Power Vista Plant. It’s another monument to the 1960s, and another wonder of the deep.

email: mkunz@buffnews.com