Exploring Close to Home: Vancouver Aquarium

Every once in a while, the government does something wonderful. In our case, it’s British Columbia’s creation of the Family Day holiday on the second Monday in February. I have always found the stretch from New Year’s to spring break to be the toughest time of the year. It’s cold, days are short, and it always seems to be the busiest time at work and school. So a three day weekend right in the middle of all that winter misery is just what the doctor ordered. And, while not everyone in BC agrees, the fact that it’s a week before the President’s day holiday in the United States makes it a perfect time to get away with the family without the usual holiday crowds and prices.

Last year we celebrated Family Day with a trip to the provincial capital in Victoria, we decided to just do an overnight trip to Vancouver this year and check out the Vancouver Aquarium. My parents had given us a one year family membership to the aquarium as a Christmas present and we wanted to make the most of it. The Vancouver Aquarium is a world class attraction, but it certainly isn’t cheap. At $31 for an adult and $16 for a child aged four to twelve it costs almost $100 just to get in the door, so paying $185 for the membership and returning several times over the year makes a lot of sense.

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We started our little visit the day before, driving into the city in the afternoon and staying at the Hampton Inn and Suites in the Yaletown area of Vancouver. We have been quite impressed with many of the Hamptons we’ve stayed at recently and this one didn’t disappoint. It is brand new and very modern and the location would be perfect for anyone coming to town to go to a hockey game or other event at the stadium or arena. It had a lot of extra touches like free umbrellas and a large hot tub on the top floor with a great view of the downtown core. And yet all this came at non-luxury price of $89 per night because of a great $100 off promo I found online. The rate even included an excellent hot breakfast.

One advantage of staying in Vancouver was being able to get an early start in the morning. The Vancouver Aquarium gets very busy on weekends and I’ve found that it helps to arrive at opening time to avoid the crowds. We were able to have a leisurely morning and still get to aquarium at opening time. Most people go in and immediately start checking out the large tanks just off the entrance, but I’ve learned that it’s best to bypass the early exhibits and go straight to the Arctic galleries at the back and work backwards from there.

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The Arctic gallery has my favourite animals in the entire aquarium, the beluga whales. There are two of the beautiful creatures there and if you get there early enough you can have a the whole viewing area to yourself to enjoy them gliding by. The underwater viewing area also has some interesting exhibits about the ecosystems of the Canadian Arctic and the lives of the people who live there.

You won’t find any Seaworld style animal shows at the Vancouver Aquarium. The focus is on conservation and education and dolphins doing pirouettes while fountains spout water and Chariots of Fire plays in the background isn’t really part of their vision. They do, however, have educational shows about once an hour where trainers interact with the animals and they talk about their diets, characteristics and natural behaviours. And if you really want to get wet, the belugas will squirt water at the crowds now and then!

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After we watched the beluga demonstration we checked out the penguins and the otters before heading inside to check out the indoor exhibits. There are displays of both tropical and native British Columbian marine life as well as a walk through Amazon exhibit with birds, monkeys and even a hard to spot two toed sloth. Other highlights include several strangely mesmerizing tanks of jellyfish, an exhibit featuring frogs and other amphibians and a two story tall tank featuring local marine life.

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The aquarium also has a small “4-D” theatre which was running a feature on the changing Arctic. I usually find the features like vibrating seats and little sprays of water that these shows use to be more distracting than anything, but the kids seemed to enjoy the novelty of it. We also checked out a play area called Clownfish Cove, which was for kids under eight. I was a wee bit disappointed, because when we were last there when they were three and four we couldn’t drag them away. This time they played for about ten minutes then announced they were bored and ready to move on. Oh well, I guess I can’t stop them from outgrowing those kinds of things.

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We ended our day with another loop around the outdoor areas to see the “Wild Coast” exhibit. It featured several rescued animals including a porpoise who’s front fins had been amputated by a fishing net and a false killer whale who was washed up as a young calf on Vancouver Island. The kids loved watching the two sea lions, who spent their time swimming in circles while periodically making extremely loud brays, which sounded to my kids a lot like burping. They laughed about the “burping sea lions” all the way home. But I suppose if that’s what they remember about our day our, that’s okay with me. We have all year for them to learn about the rest.

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