#1 Monterey Bay Aquarium
Location: Monterey, California
Packed inside this sardine-cannery-like building on the California coast are almost 200 exhibits featuring more than 35,000 animals and plants — as well as the biggest collection of flip books, slide-up panels, light-up buttons, and other touchable, kid-friendly features of all the aquariums on our list. Even the signs here are interactive: They’re written with rhyme and rhythm to make them more fun for older kids to read aloud. The result is a place designed to keep your child’s attention from start to finish.
Standout Feature: Splash Zone, a 7,000-square-foot area with more than 30 hands-on features created for children under age 9. Kids can crawl through a tunnel filled with tropical-fish displays, pull a plush stuffed moray eel out of its den to measure it, and use squirt toys to learn how animals resist crashing waves.
Interactive Elements: Underwater video cameras that let children steer through tide pools and wetlands; a mirror that allows kids to see themselves as hairy-nosed otters; four touch pools packed with sea life; arts and crafts projects including crayon rubbings and scrapbooks; whale flippers and other costumes; and mini microscopes for viewing specimens.
Group Programs: An Aquarium Detectives class that allows 3- to 9-year-olds to feed the fish before the facility opens to the public; Discovery Lab school programs for all grade levels (they meet the state’s science standards); and penguin and sea-otter-feeding shows several times daily.
Cost: Adults, $25; kids 3 to 12, $16; teens 13 and up, $23; and free for kids under 3 (mbayaq.org).
Our Rating Method
Ever notice how a child’s face lights up when you visit an aquarium? Watching all the colorful sea creatures swimming around in larger-than-life tanks can seem pretty magical, especially to young kids. But there’s more to a great exhibit than just fish. «Research shows that hands-on features — like opportunities to touch marine life — sustain interest, spark learning, and create a fun visit for the whole family,» says Angela V. Graziano, of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
With this in mind, we scoured the country to find aquariums where kids don’t just look at cool things — they get to take part. Our 41-question survey evaluated the number, creativity, and educational aspect of each aquarium’s interactive features. We also graded the aquariums on the quality and kid-friendliness of their exhibits, services (like changing stations), staff and educators, special programs for groups and families, and conservation efforts. Along with our panel of experts, we narrowed it down to our top 10 favorites.
You may not be able to see all the microscopic ways substrate benefits your fish, but you’ll definitely notice how it enhances the aquarium’s overall aesthetic appeal. Besides adding a design feature to the tank, substrate hides waste and other materials that otherwise would float through the water. Try having a bare-bottomed tank for even a day, and you’ll be amazed at how much «junk» appears on the bottom.
In addition to hiding undesirable materials, substrate shows off what you really want to see: the fish. For instance, a silver fish against bare glass doesn’t stand out well. But look at it against a dark substrate, and suddenly all its features pop. Besides making viewing more fun, substrate in a contrasting color to the fish allows you to have a better look at any health issues or odd behavior in your fish.
Location: Orlando/San Antonio/San Diego
Amusement parks and aquariums all rolled into one, the three SeaWorld sites mix rides with marine biology. This means your kids will learn a thing or two without even noticing (or protesting). While the trio of SeaWorlds offers similar attractions, such as a touch-and-feed pool for bottlenose dolphins, the programs vary by park.
Standout Feature: Penguin Encounter, a moving walkway at all three parks that gives great views of hundreds of the birds.
Interactive Elements: A water park with a wave pool and the Lil’ Gators Lagoon for small children in San Antonio; a chance for kids to march with flamingos in San Diego and Orlando; lots of touch pools; animal specialists walking around with different creatures throughout the parks.
Group Programs: A number of thrilling shows with dolphins, killer whales, sea lions, and walruses; lots of family and kid-only sleepovers.
Cost: Adults, $44 to $65; kids 3 to 9, $35 to $54; and free for kids under 3 (seaworld.com).
Educate and Plan
Tell elementary age children that fish go to the bathroom in the water they live in, and wastes can harm the fish. Explain that special bacteria in the filter system and in the gravel get rid of those wastes, but the bacteria take several weeks to grow enough to do the job. While they are growing, it is important to only have a few fish in the tank and change the water often to get rid of the wastes.
Middle school and high school students are capable of understanding the nitrogen cycle as it occurs in an aquarium; take this opportunity to teach them about it. Too many aquarium owners are unaware of this critical process, and as a result, they lose fish by adding too many fish to soon, causing ammonia or nitrite toxicity.
Once your tank is ready for fish, talk about fish choices with your children. Avoid large or aggressive fish or those that are difficult to care for. Read aquarium books, magazines or online articles to learn about the different species of tropical fish, how big each fish gets, and which fish can live together. Decide on a few hardy starter fish to choose from before going to the store, then see what is available. Ask the store associate questions to learn more about the fish they have. Be sure to know how big each fish will get so you don’t pick that will grow too big for the size of your aquarium.
Now comes your biggest challenge, as new aquarium owners, young and old alike, want to get lots of fish as soon as possible. Fish should never be purchased on the same day as the tank. You want to take the aquarium home and set it up, get the filter and lights working, dechlorinate and aerate the water, and add beneficial bacteria starter before adding any fish. Install the aquarium heater and set it to the correct temperature, usually between 74-78 degrees F for tropical fish.
It’s critical to set up the tank, let it run for a day or two to stabilize the water temperature and ensure everything is functioning properly before fish are added. Note: This initial waiting period is not the startup-cycle; that doesn’t begin until fish are added. During the time you allow the tank to stabilize, sharing some basic facts about aquarium wastes will help eager children wait for their new fish.
After the aquarium is set up and running properly, then it is time to get a few fish. Adding too many fish too soon and overfeeding them are the biggest mistakes new owners make. You should only add 2-3 fish at a time into a new aquarium. Wait a week, test the water quality — or bring in a sample to your fish store to be tested — and if the water quality is good, then you can add a few more fish. You should spread out purchasing more fish for your new aquarium over the first 4-6 weeks.
Larger is better, but keep in mind the space you have available. A 55-gallon tank is not practical for a dorm room. However, almost anyone can find a place for a 20-gallon tank. Avoid tall thin tanks and stick with shorter longer tank, as they provide more swimming space and surface area for air exchange. Glass aquariums are preferred by many, however, acrylic tanks weigh less and because they don’t break, are preferable for use with children in the household. Remember that acrylic tanks require support along the entire bottom surface, not just the edges.
Aquariums are heavy, figure 10 pounds per gallon of water capacity, so plan accordingly. A particle board bookcase is usually not sturdy enough to hold anything more than a very small aquarium. Be sure to use a real aquarium stand designed to hold the weight of an aquarium. Most aquarium warranties are void if the aquarium is not placed on an appropriate aquarium stand. There are plans available for making your own stand, if you are handy with a hammer and saw.
Lid or Hood
Tanks are sold with lid separate from the light, or the lid and light may be joined into one unit referred to as the «hood.» The lid portion covers the tank and serves to prevent fish from jumping out of the tank. It also reduces evaporation, and protects the light from getting wet. If the lid is combined with the light, it is often made of plastic, which is less expensive, weighs less, and is not as easy to break. Glass lids are easier to clean, provide a tighter cover, and allow more outside light to enter the aquarium.
Although the aquarium light is often packaged with the lid, you may have the option to purchase the light separately. Light options include incandescent, halogen, fluorescent, mercury vapor, metal halide and Light Emitting Diode (LED) bulbs. A good option for a beginner is the fluorescent light, as it costs less to run and is much cooler. The LED lights are becoming more commonly available and are the best choice as they use little electricity compared to other bulbs, so are inexpensive to run and don’t heat the water. Check to see if the bulb is included with the light fixture, and if it isn’t, be sure to purchase one.
The filtration system is a critical piece of equipment. It keeps the water quality clean to keep the fish healthy, so get the best filter you can afford. Although there are many styles available, a power filter with a biowheel system is highly recommended. The size of the filter must be appropriate for the size of the aquarium. Choose a filter with a flow rate that filters all the water in your tank at least four times each hour. For example, a 20-gallon tank should have a filter with a flow rate of at least 80 gallons per hour (GPH). When it’s borderline, always move to a higher flow rate. For bigger aquariums, canister filters are the best choice of filters.
Most fish require a temperature of about 74 to 77 degrees F. Unless your house remains in that range all the time, you’ll need a heater. Aquarium heaters come as hang-on-the-tank or submersible models and may have a numerical setting or simply an up and down setting. Go for the submersible with a numerical setting. It will cost more but they are worth it. As for size, a rule of thumb for wattage is to use 5 watts per gallon for smaller tanks and 3 watts per gallon for larger tanks. However, the room temperature does affect the wattage needed; colder climates may need more watts per gallon. For aquariums over 40 gallons, it is a good idea to get two smaller heaters and put one at each end of the aquarium, rather than one larger heater. This provides better distribution of heat throughout the aquarium.
The liquid crystal stick-on thermometers are inexpensive, easy to read, and generally accurate enough for general use. If you plan to breed fish or keep delicate fish, you should opt for a thermometer that goes in the water.
This is the material that lines the bottom of the aquarium. Generally, a small, smooth, dark-colored gravel is preferable. Get one pound of gravel for each gallon of water. Rinse the gravel before placing it into the aquarium.
Choose a medium-sized, good quality net. Better yet, get two nets. Catching fish is easier with two nets, and it’s always wise to have a spare net on hand. You never know when you may tear or misplace one of your nets. Handle length should be proportionate to the size of your aquarium, so that you don’t have to stick your hand into the water when catching fish in a large aquarium.
Illustration: The Spruce / Bailey Mariner
Overstocking the Aquarium
It is very common for new owners to overstock the aquarium. Although an experienced person may successfully keep a school of 20 small fish in a ten-gallon aquarium, it would be disastrous for a beginner to attempt it.
The net gallons of water should be the amount of water actually placed in the aquarium after the gravel and decorations are in it. You will want to use an 80 percent ratio of tank volume to actual water in the aquarium.
For example, a «10-gallon aquarium» may only hold 8 gallons of water after the decorations and gravel have been added. Using the one inch of fish length per gallon of water rule, 8 inches of fish is a maximum number to be safely kept. That could be 8 fish that grow to be one inch long when full-grown, or 4 fish that grow to be 2-inches long when full-grown. It is always wise to go under the maximum to rather than over. This is just a general rule and bigger aquariums with large filtration systems can often hold more fish than this, if the water quality is managed properly.
What’s the quietest type of aquarium filter?
There are a couple of different types of aquarium filters. They differ in the way they’re implementing the filtering technology. Here’s a list:
- Sponge filters
- HOB (Hang On the Back) filters
- Canister filters
- Internal filters
And here’s which type is the quietest:
Canister filters are hands-down the most silently-operating water filtration units for aquariums out there. Their architecture and the particular way of turning water via tubing allows them to remain absolutely soundless, while still performing the best in terms of water turnover.
Let me explain.
A sponge filter is air-pump powered. It will create air bubbles that will quickly find their way to the water surface. This creates a bubbling noise.
I find that type of noise quite tranquilizing, but I can’t say it’s quiet.
These filters are usually used as secondary filtration for smaller tanks. The main reasons fishkeepers would get them is because of the extra oxygenation (as they move the water surface) and their potential to house beneficial bacteria.
Hang-on-back external filters:
A HOB filter’s motor will run very quiet indeed. However, the way they return water in your fish tank can be noisy.
They literally hang on the wall of your aquarium, creating a waterfall effect.
Usually, you can keep the noise down by maintaining the water level to a reasonable height.
Many aquarists are not as diligent though. One needs to top off the water every 3 to 4 days, to avoid the splashing sound effect.
Most nowadays HOBs have slightly modified outlets that make the water “slide in” the tank rather than fall.
Still, evaporation eventually comes into play and you still find yourself enjoying the blessing sounds of the Niagara Falls.
I personally am a big fan of white noise, and if you’re like me you’d probably appreciate a HOB filter.
However, if you have a roommate who’s a light sleeper, or the aquarium is situated in your children’s room I would not recommend this type of filter unless you’re willing to stay on top of the maintenance.
For diligent people only!
Internal filters do actually perform well when it comes to noise.
But that’s about it.
It’s just that I would never recommend any of these filters to anyone.
They are air-powered (same as sponge filters), which makes them weaker. They break often and do not provide a filtration powerful enough.
Don’t compromise with your filtration, people!
These filters are not a good long-term investment, as you’d find yourself paying for a new one over and over again.
These filters only work for a smaller tank with very few fish in it. Like a small school of danios or some other dwarf fish.
If this is the case for you, you can look around in Amazon or Chewy for the Aqueon Quietflow Internal Filter.
Quiet but not good for a community tank.
External canister filters:
Canister filters crush the competition when it comes to soundproof filtration.
This is because they operate in a specially designed cartridge outside of the aquarium.
They are water-powered, which contributes to less internal noise.
Also, there’s tubing.
You won’t hear water splashing, because the water is being returned via a tube. This way they still move water surface (providing oxygenation) while avoiding the crashing waterfall effect.
Most newer models have sound-dampening technology implemented to reduce the noise even more.
No vibration and no humming noises.
My experience has been that canister filters provide both the quietest and most powerful filtration.
#6 Aquarium of the Pacific
Location: Long Beach, California
Located in downtown Long Beach, the aquarium celebrates the great body of water just beyond its doors and all the creatures that make it their home. And what’s more quintessentially Pacific than sharks? The aquarium’s state-of-the-art Shark Lagoon features more than 200, including the West Coast’s only bull shark. Kids can touch gentler varieties such as the zebra, epaulette, and bamboo sharks. And the lagoon is surrounded by play areas with a water-squirting squid and an air dryer shaped like a shark.
Standout Feature: Seal and Sea Lion Encounter, a behind-the-scenes tour with a marine biologist. Guests have the opportunity to prepare food and then feed it to the seals.
Interactive Elements: A free passport book that kids can stamp as they explore the aquarium; the Marine Life Theater, where interactive kids’ programs take place daily; Lorikeet Forest Aviary, where a colorful bird or two might use guests as a landing pad; sand-castle-building contests during the summer; and several touch pools.
Group Programs: Saturday Family Fun classes for a parent and child (ages 4 to 6); daily hula performances at the Blue Cavern; and whale-watching cruises.
Cost: Adults, $21; kids 3 to 11, $12; and free for kids under 3 (aquariumofpacific.org).
#2 Georgia Aquarium
Location: Atlanta, Georgia
What do more than 8 million gallons of water and several different habitats get you? The world’s largest aquarium, of course! Across from Centennial Olympic Park in downtown Atlanta, the 550,000-square-foot complex boasts an unparalleled display of sea life, two gift shops, a food court, and — attention, PTA moms! — a school program (the Learning Loop) that attracted nearly 55,000 children last year.
Standout Feature: Ocean Voyager, the biggest exhibit in the aquarium, features more than 60,000 animals, including the only whale sharks in the U.S. Families can view the animals in a 100-foot-long tunnel that surrounds visitors with water on three sides and features a floor-to-ceiling window, and for a more focused look, numerous smaller lower-level windows. A touch-screen wall allows kids to press a digital fish as it swims by and to learn fun facts about all of the sea creatures in the exhibit.
Interactive Elements: Several supervised touch pools, including ones in which kids can feel bonnethead sharks, rays, and sea urchins; crawl-through tunnels; pop-up windows that give kids a close-up view of penguins and piranhas; joy sticks to control a camera that displays close-up shots of animals; and a playground with a rubber floor, crawl tubes, and a whale slide.
Group Programs: Behind-the-scenes tours for families; Camp H2O, a weeklong summer day camp for kids ages 5 to 14; and a state-of-the-art 4-D theater.
Cost: Adults, $24; kids 3 to 12, $18; and free for kids under 3 (georgiaaquarium.org).
How to silence a fish tank filter that’s already running?
If you already have a filter that is being too loud, you should try everything you can before buying a new one, right? Here’s a list of things that can quiet a noisy fish tank filter:
- Remove the ceramic and bio balls media – In filters with stronger pumps, the vibration noise could easily be multiplied by ceramic bio-balls. This is something I discovered on my own. Not really proud, but it’s worth mentioning!
- Use filter floss – aside from polishing your water crystal clear, filter floss can also reduce the inside noise of your filter. I wrote an article on where to get tons of it for really cheap and why you should use it.
- Top off the water level consistently – If it’s a HOB filter you’re having you might be familiar with the waterfall bubbling noise. To achieve a silent aquarium overflow, just top off the water that has been evaporating. The closer the water surface is to the filter outlet, the less splashing there will be. This will effectively put an end to your fish tank filter’s noisy bubbles. If it’s a turtle tank that you’re having, have a look at this video
- Wait out the remanent priming – Did you recently install your filter? Is it a canister filter? If this is the case then there might be some remanent priming going on. After the initial priming, some microscopic air bubbles might still remain inside of your filter. Worry not – the device will sort that on its own. Just give it some more time. Manually joggle the unit if needed.
- Remove gunk trapped inside – though kind of obvious when it comes to noise reduction, it’s mandatory to mention this. If there’s gunk or sand trapped on the inside of your filter it may be the cause behind the rattling.
- Apply vaseline to the impeller – an old trick that you should definitely try before rushing to the store for a new unit. Use a cotton swab and apply liberal amounts on the impeller of your filter. There are tons of videos online on how to disassemble one if you’re worried you’re not handy enough.
- Replace the faulty part – well, all things break eventually. You should at least manually inspect the insides of your filter before throwing it away. An unnatural grinding noise is usually caused by a faulty motor or impeller. After you identify the faulty piece, look up its replacement and see if it’s worth the hassle. Usually, the parts can be found cheaper online, if you’re willing to wait for the delivery. If you have friends who are also fishkeepers, there may be a good chance that they’ll have what you need, so ask around.
- Clean the pipes and tubing – sometimes debris may partially clog your tubing, which leads to a louder hum in stronger aquarium filters. Use hot water to rinse the insides. Don’t forget to run some dechlorinated water through them after the cleaning.
Aquarium Fishing Game
- 8. Tape one plastic ring to each of the plastic fish. Fill the large aquarium three-fourths full with water and drop all of the fish inside. Place the three small aquariums in front of the large aquarium.
- 9. Tie one shoestring to one end of each wooden dowel and tie the other end of the shoestring to the end of one hook.
- 10. Have six contestants use the dowels and hooks to grab the loops and remove the fish from the large aquarium into the small aquariums. The six contestants should work in pairs, making three teams of two each with their own small aquarium. The team that hooks and removes the most fish wins.
Be aware that an aquarium larger than 15 gallons will weigh more than 200 hundred pounds when filled, and should be placed on a stand rather than a shelf or desk. You’ll also need a place to put the aquarium that is not in direct sunlight or be subjected to drafts or temperature extremes that could harm the fish.
The location must also be capable of getting wet from time to time. Performing maintenance, adding or removing fish and other items from the tank will splash water around the tank. so keep that in mind if you are thinking about keeping a tank on your desktop or over a shelf of books or other items that might get wet.
#5 The Florida Aquarium
Location: Tampa Bay, Florida
Kids will want to head straight for the aquarium’s Explore a Shore, an outdoor water park featuring a 24-foot pirate ship with water cannons, a wave tunnel, and a moray-eel balance beam. But the real fun is inside this 200,000-square-foot attraction. It features more than 20,000 aquatic plants and animals, ranging from rare leafy sea dragons from Australia to
gators from Florida’s backyard.
Standout Feature: The Coral Reef Gallery, modeled after the coral formations along the Florida Keys, that includes a walk-through tunnel descending into an underwater coral cave filled with soldierfish, scorpion-fish, and more.
Interactive Elements: Daily opportunities for kids to touch and get their photo taken with juvenile alligators; a climb-on mermaid sculpture; a computer screen that allows kids to design their own aquarium; and an improved touch tank stocked with pettable rays and bamboo sharks.
Group Programs: The penguin promenade in the lobby to give kids the chance to come face-to-face with these popular birds; hands-on Aquatots program (ages 3 to 4); eco-tours of Tampa Bay aboard a catamaran.
Cost: Adults, $18; kids 3 to 11, $13; and free for kids under 3 (flaquarium.org).