Denver’s Downtown Aquarium: Up Close and Personal

Denver’s Downtown Aquarium: Up Close and Personal 2My son is down on his knees, eye-to-slitted eye with a bamboo shark. They are staring at each other in fascination, both of their noses touching the separating glass, about a finger thick and reaching just over my belly button. The brown-banded fish and the 3-year-old boy are almost the same size, now waving hands and fins at each other respectively. I watch in disbelief and when I feel a persistent tug on my pants, “Please, please! Lift me over,” I almost do.

It’s so personal. That’s probably the best thing about Denver, Colorado’s Downtown Aquarium. Sure, the young greeter wearing a camera round his neck is supposed to sell us a commemorative photograph, but he welcomes every guest — interested or not — genuinely friendly. Mystic Mermaids blow you kisses. Yellow stingrays seem to be grinning. Divers wave at you while hand feeding Alaskan king crabs. And I could swear that pot-bellied seahorse winked at me as it coiled its delicate tail around swaying green seaweeds — multiple times around multiple seaweeds.

“Do they ever get tangled?” wonders my 6-year-old. She has just mastered to tie her own shoe laces. “Could seahorses undo a knot?” Who knows if Hippocampus abdominali are aware of tricky macramé? They are an artwork by Mother Nature, that much is certain, and their fish tank on display here resembles a moving masterpiece.

The aquarium houses over 500 species of animals in more than a million gallons of underwater exhibits that highlight fascinating ecosystems around the world. Originally it started out in 1999 as Colorado’s Ocean Journey, a non-profit educational operation that eventually defaulted. In 2003 the facility was purchased by Landry’s Restaurants Inc., probably best known for a chain of U.S. restaurants that specialize in seafood and steaks. The company reopened the redesigned complex on July 14, 2005, as Downtown Aquarium.

Colorado’s Ocean Journey was founded by Bill Fleming and Judy Petersen Fleming. It was created as a nonprofit entity. Partial funding came from a $57 million bond loan in addition to loans from the Department of Housing and Urban Development. The total cost was a staggering $93 million when it first opened.

The aquarium was successful, with a large attendance for many years. However, after 9/11 struck in 2001, the number of guests took a drastic fall within a short time. This caused the number of visitors to fail to meet attendance projections of more than a million per year. This was due, in part, to a downturn in the U.S. economy. It resulted in the aquarium being unable to make payments on the huge construction debt. Unfortunately, it caused the Colorado Ocean Journey Liquidation Inc to file bankruptcy in April 2002 with a $62.5 million debt.  This led to Landry’s purchasing the facility in March 2003 for $13.6 million.

The aquarium remained open, following the purchase, until the summer of 2005. It closed briefly for renovations. The changes included a restaurant, bar, and ballroom. There was a 150,000 U.S. gallon marine aquarium added to the restaurant area. When it reopened in July 2005, the name changed to the Downtown Aquarium.

After the Landry’s purchased the aquarium, they engaged the services of a newly formed volunteer program known as the Deep Blue Sea Foundation. The nonprofit group was formed to make certain the educational goals of the original founders would continue.

I must confess that I was rather amused about a seafood restaurant business running an aquatic museum. And, yes, you can observe giant freshwater prawns of the Indio-Pacific in their tank first and order a shrimp cocktail in the restaurant for lunch later. Despite this ironic twist, Landry proudly partners with organizations like the Nature Conservancy, providing funds and programs that assist efforts in preserving natural resources. To marvel at an amazing aquatic architecture should be enough compelling argument for conservation. The Downtown Aquarium takes it up a notch. The message of the Mermaid Show, in which three young women with fabric fishtails and incredibly waterproof makeup dance a submerged “Ring around the Rosie,” is all about recycling.

“At the Wharf” offers an an up-close look at the bountiful populations of fish that are drawn to these man-made reefs. In “Rainforests of the World” you will be immersed in the sights, sounds and feel of the jungle. Natural light cascades through the glass ceiling, illuminating a Banyan tree-lined path leading to the aquarium’s four Sumatran tigers. Hanging vines and foliage surround lagoons filled with hatchet fish, poison arrow frogs and razor-sharp-teethed piranha.

The “Coral Lagoon” is a peaceful place of amazing wonders where colorful clownfish, damsel fish, surgeon and angelfish dart about their habitat. A tank featuring more than 300,000 gallons of water is made to look like a “Sunken Temple.” Its centerpiece is a dazzling natural coral reef where lionfish, barracuda and brown sharks swim through coral tunnels and valleys.

Have you ever walked through a ship’s belly? This is how it feels approaching “Ship Wreck.” It is supposed to be the sunken hull of a 17th century Spanish Galleon, now home to jellyfish, 200-pound Eastern Pacific sea turtles and sand tigers. The light is dimmed and background music scary. Well, of course, this is also where the big sharks are and where two volunteer divers hand feed them. “I hope they don’t get eaten alive”, whispers a little girl next to me. As if the loudspeakers overheard her, a voice explains one human on average may die worldwide due to a shark incident, but that humans cause about 100 million shark deaths per year. “That’s mean” mutters my daughter.

We have arrived at the last station of our visit, the interactive touch tank with sting rays as large as 5 feet wide. I feel that both my children are trying to be extra nice to the sea creatures as if to counteract the injustice done to their marine buddies. My daughter is patiently feeding them bait and my little guy is petting the giant rays very gently. I smile. The elements may separate us, but the lesson is learned.

If You Go

Downtown Aquarium
700 Water St.
Denver, Colorado 80211

Downtown Aquarium is open from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and from 10 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Admissions are $15.99 for adults, $14.99 for seniors, $9.99 for children ages 3 to 11 and free for children 2 and under.

In addition to the exhibit ticket you can purchase tickets to the 4D Theatre for $5.50 per person if you buy multiple passes (a single pass is $5.99), which include your choice of two items: Stingray Fish Food, Face Painting, Soda or Coconut Tree Climb. You need to wear proper shoes, no flip-flops if you wish to climb the tree.

The marine exhibits are classified in different sections. Wandering through an artificial yet very believable canyon you meet well-known freshwater fish like sturgeons and animals from alligators to river otters. But did you know that carnivorous soft shell turtles looking like leathery pancakes with pointy long noses ambush their prey by hiding in the sand of the “North American Wilderness”?

You better trust the warning signs “Wet Zone,” because you will get soaked “In the Desert,” the next section that mimics the roaring effects of a flash flood. Learn how desert pupfish survive in puddles and marshes of desert springs and watch rattlesnakes slither through the red sand.

Sand meets water “At the Beach,” where black bellied plovers and Bonaparte gulls rendezvous with yellow stingrays, bamboo sharks and my wide-eyed little boy. Surround yourself by marine life “Under the Sea” strolling through a glass tunnel slicing beneath an enormous aquarium. What was the name again of the funny looking bumpy headed fish circling the artificial reef? Never mind. Watch your own upper story when walking along the curved glass marveling at sea horses, sawfish, eels and grouper.