When it comes to unique aquatic critters, the Belle Isle Aquarium is a Detroit gem where kids can play and learn – whether it’s biology or history.
“Not only is it a fun family activity that makes memories for years to come, but it stimulates questions of ‘why’ and awe, and maybe even wanting to learn more,” says Amy Emmert, school programs director for the Belle Isle Aquarium and neighboring conservatory. “Hopefully it stimulates not just curiosity but the desire to get more information or walk away and share something.”
Since reopening to the public in 2012, the aquarium has become a popular attraction, luring as many as 3,600 weekend visitors. With 125 to 150 species of quirky fish, reptiles, amphibians and invertebrates in about 50 tanks, there’s plenty to capture kids’ imaginations.
“We do have the typical very-flashy clownfish, seahorses and the moray eels, but a majority of our collection are actually freshwater,” Emmert says. “What I think is so unique about us – and what I think kids can really learn and refocus on – is that freshwater fish can be really funky and fascinating too.”
Beyond boasting one of the largest collections of air-breathing fish around, the aquarium also has freshwater puffers, stingrays and other freshwater species.
Kids curious? Ask away! Volunteer docents help answer questions about aquarium residents – and even the building, which was created in 1904 by famed architect Albert Kahn and features an ornate “Beaux Art” style stone façade outside and shimmery green-glass tile inside. For tech-savvy visitors, many displays have codes to scan with a smartphone to learn more about a particular species.
“To me, the aquarium presents visual cues to stimulate questions for kids, just to remind them how cool nature and science is,” Emmert says. “And if you do have questions or want to hear more information or cool stories, these wonderful, wonderful volunteers show up every Saturday and Sunday.”
While it may not be as large or as showy as other nationally recognized aquariums, this one’s got charm that can’t be topped – and of course, free entry never hurts for parents with young kids, says Vance Patrick, aquarium co-chair and long-time advocate.
“The nice thing about the Belle Isle Aquarium: If your kid goes into the aquarium and has a meltdown, guess what? You leave and you come back tomorrow or you come back next weekend. You didn’t waste $25 or $23 to come in.”
More than anything, as one of the oldest continually operating aquariums in the country, what keeps families coming back is the atmosphere, which is surprisingly modern and inviting with its brightly colored design.
Address: 900 Inselruhe Ave., Belle Isle State Park, Detroit
Hours: 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays
Cost: Free/general; $11/Recreation Passport for car (annual fee to enter all Michigan state parks). Free/parking