10 of the World's Most Impressive Aquariums

People gathered in front of a huge aquarium display
Photo: Michael Gray [CC by SA-2.0]/Flickr

Oceans cover most of the Earth's surface, yet the underwater world remains a mystery to most people. This is why aquariums are such interesting attractions. They offer a glimpse of what goes on under the waves and at the bottom of lakes and rivers. In these unique exhibit halls, you can come face to face with huge marine mammals, vibrantly colored or unusually shaped fish, and habitats that are completely different from anything you can see on land. Case in point: this kelp forest at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

If you want to come face to face with this often-hidden part of our planet, these world-class aquariums are a great place to start.

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Shedd Aquarium

Adam Arroyo/Flickr.

Opened in 1930, Chicago's John G. Shedd Aquarium boasted the first permanent inland saltwater tank in the U.S., and for a time was the largest aquarium in the world. Today, its most impressive tank is a circular 90,000-gallon coral reef exhibit with sharks, rays and sea turtles. A huge array of aquatic and terrestrial life — ranging from sea horses to beluga whales, sea lions and some noisy penguins — provides a diverse setting perfect for hours of wandering.

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Georgia Aquarium

SeanPavonePhoto / Shutterstock.com.

Until Singapore's SEA Aquarium opened, the Georgia Aquarium was the largest venue of its kind in the world. With more than 10 million gallons of saltwater and freshwater and more than 500 species on display, it is the biggest aquarium in the U.S., by far. The headlining inhabitants here are whale sharks (Georgia is home to the only non-wild whale sharks outside of Asia) and manta rays.

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SEA, Singapore

Erwin Soo/Flickr.

Singapore's SEA (Southeast Asia) Aquarium holds the title of the largest aquarium in the world. It has over 12 million gallons of water and more than 800 species, with nearly 100,000 aquatic inhabitants in total. Less than a year old, the SEA is part of Singapore's Resort World Sentosa complex. Because of its size, this is certainly a daylong attraction, but if we had to name one single headlining feature, it would have to be the single-pane viewing panel on the aquarium’s “Open Ocean” exhibit. This window stands nearly 120 feet wide and 27 feet tall, making it the largest single-pane aquarium window in the world.

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Churaumi, Okinawa

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Water for the ocean exhibits at the Churaumi Aquarium in Okinawa is pumped from the sea to create an authentic environment for the marine inhabitants inside this Ocean Expo Park attraction. The headlining display at Churaumi is the massive, 2-million-gallon Kuroshio Sea tank with manta rays, including a few that have been born in the aquarium, and whale sharks, one of the rarest species aquarium visitors will ever see. Churaumi's Coral Sea exhibit receives direct sunlight so that the coral is able to grow just as it would in the wild.

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AQWA, Perth, Australia

AQWA.

The Aquarium of Western Australia, often referred to using the acronym AQWA, is not one of the world's largest aquatic exhibit halls, but it does house marine animals from Australia's coastlines not seen in other aquariums. Sitting in the city of Perth, AQWA's most popular feature is an underwater glass tunnel passing along the bottom of several habitats. Interactive attractions include an off-site ocean safari, a guided swim through AQWA's shark tank and an underwater walk through a real coral reef (shown here) — one of the largest of any aquarium in the world.

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Shanghai Ocean

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This aquarium in Shanghai, China, has more than 1.3 million gallons of water. The headlining exhibit is a 500-foot underwater tunnel passing through habitats including a shark tank, coral reef and kelp forest. Of special interest to aquatic life aficionados is the China Zone, an area where rare and endangered animals from the waters of the Middle Kingdom are housed. Little-seen species like the giant salamander, Chinese sturgeon and Yangtze alligator are on display.

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Vancouver

David Davies/Flickr.

The Vancouver Aquarium, in the famous Stanley Park, is more than a tourist attraction: It is a center for research and education and a base for marine conservation in the Pacific Northwest and around the world. Marine inhabitants include beluga whales and Pacific white-sided dolphins, while the above-water habitats are home to sloths, birds, snakes and frogs. The aquarium's professional naturalists interpret the behaviors and authenticate the habitats of the animals living in the aquarium’s exhibits.

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Monterey Bay, California

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Sitting on California’s scenic Central Coast, this unique aquarium has a huge array of animals — over 600 species in total. Fresh ocean water from Monterey Bay is pumped into some of the exhibits, making a more-natural habitat for the aquarium’s many marine residents. A unique jellyfish exhibit, a giant octopus tank, a sea otter habitat, a seabird aviary, great white sharks and several exhibits dedicated to local wildlife (including a kelp forest) are a few of this ocean-side aquarium's many highlights. The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s research branch is heavily involved in the study of the world's oceans. Its projects include deep-sea research, studies on climate change and ocean chemistry, and sustainable fisheries.

Check out the aquarium's kelp forest cam below:

9
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Lisbon Oceanarium

Damien du Toit/Flickr.

Lisbon's Oceanarium is the largest indoor aquarium in Europe. With over 450 species of fish, marine mammals and birds, it is certainly worth several hours of visitors' time. One unique resident in the Oceanarium is a sunfish (shown here), a species rarely kept in aquariums because it is so difficult to care for. The main tank features a plethora of aquarium standards: sharks, eels, rays and schooling fish. It is perhaps fitting that, given Portugal's long history as a seafaring nation, the exhibits cover every major ocean on the globe, with an Arctic exhibit, an Atlantic Ocean tank, a tropical Indian Ocean habitat, and tanks housing species from the Pacific's temperate waters.

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L'Oceanografic, Valencia, Spain

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This aquarium in Valencia, Spain's City of Arts and Sciences district, is arguably one of the most unusual venues of its kind on the planet. L’Oceanogràfic's main building, with a curving roof and huge windows, is an attraction in its own right. The aquarium is made up of separate wings dedicated to different ocean ecosystems. It also has a dolphinarium that hosts training sessions and performances, and habitats for unique creatures such as walruses, penguins and beluga whales.