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Adventure Awaits at Camden’s Adventure Aquarium
The Adventure Aquarium Experience is Back
By Elyse Notarianni

The thing about South Jersey is that no matter where you are, you’re never far from a body of water. The ocean – and the creatures that live beneath the waves – help create some of the best memories, whether you’re heading down the shore or to the Camden waterfront.

Drawing in more than a million visitors every year, an afternoon spent at Camden’s Adventure Aquarium has become a quintessential South Jersey experience – and after a year we’ll remember as anything but normal, we aren’t taking that for granted.

Behind the scenes and under the sea

When kids pass through Adventure Aquarium’s shark tunnel – which is surrounded on all sides by 550,000 gallons of water and houses the largest collection of sharks in the Northeast – biologist Sam Ehinger is above water with the bait.

Among the spectacle of seeing more than 15,000 aquatic species all living on the Camden waterfront, it can be easy to forget the other half of this ecosystem – the people behind the scenes keeping them all healthy and happy.

“You can catch me going from exhibit to exhibit, feeding sharks, checking water temperature, exhibits, water filters,” says Ehinger. “I’m like a scientist, plumber, housekeeper and babysitter all in one.”

You may even catch her in scuba gear cleaning the inside exhibits’ 2 million gallons of water with what looks like a “large toothbrush.”

“I’m in their environment, so you have to always keep an eye out,” she says. “There’s this one sea turtle that just loves to be near you, so I’d be scrubbing the window and suddenly be nudged by a 400 lb. creature just trying to say hi.”

During her 8 years at Adventure Aquarium, she’s worked with everything from tropical fish to sharks and turtles. She’s now stationed at the cold water gallery, which she calls one of the most exciting and interesting areas of the aquarium thanks to her 2 exotic aquamarine friends Callisto and Europa, both giant Pacific octopuses.

“We gave them those names because they’re 2 of Jupiter’s moons, and they’re like aliens that just crash-landed here – there’s nothing like them on Earth,” says Ehinger.

While Ehinger makes sure their habitats are clean and they don’t escape (which, it seems, octopuses are likely to do if you don’t secure the top of the enclosure correctly), aquarium staff is available to teach guests about these fascinating animals.

“Octopuses are like children,” says Ehinger. “They’re curious, mischievous, playful and way too smart for their own good. I’m constantly giving them puzzles and different things to play with, like large Lego blocks or PVC pipes filled with food to keep them occupied and enriched, and the kids love to watch that.”

When the pandemic hit last year, it became safer to shut down big attractions to the public and stay at home – but try telling that to the stingrays, turtles and tropical fish swimming through the habitats at Adventure Aquarium. They may have suspended operations to the public from March to July 2020, but inside its doors, life still floated as normal.

“The aquarium never officially closes,” says Ehinger.“We don’t take holidays off. If we have big snow storms, we have staff spend the night to make sure there are people on hand to feed the animals, clean the exhibits or respond to any animal needs.”

So during the pandemic, staff members like Ehinger found themselves still walking through the doors in the morning, coffee in hand. But instead of saying hi to guests, they were saying hi to Button and Genny the hippos.

“Being with the animals every day was the only thing keeping me sane,” she says. “When we reopened, it was really hard not to hug the first guest who walked into the building.”

If you ask Molly Deese, the aquarium’s new executive director and vice president, the guests are what make the aquarium’s experience so special.

“When people come to the aquarium, they’re watching the animals around them in awe because these are creatures they’d never get to see in the wild,” says Deese. “But I’m watching the people. There’s such an enjoyment on people’s faces when they walk in here and see a seahorse swimming around or touch a stingray with their own hands.”

Deese comes from more than 2 decades of experience working in theme parks, and for her it all comes back to one thing – the people.

“I’ve always been people focused,” she says. “So to be here where I get to work with people every day and be part of making sure they create memories with their families, that’s really important.”

Deese leads a female-driven team at Adventure Aquarium, where leadership roles are 71 percent female, and more than 70 percent of all staff are women. Deese says it’s exciting to see women at the forefront of the aquarium’s science and conservation efforts.

Guests get to see creatures up close that they’d never see in the wild, including endangered species that the aquarium is working to conserve. Right now, there are 5 endangered animals on the Camden waterfront: African penguins, sharks, rays, sea turtles and corals. All of them face extinction because their natural habitat is being threatened by unsustainable fishing practices and climate change.

The aquarium offers exhibits that show just how much a plastic bag floating through the ocean looks like a jellyfish and how that poses a danger for hungry sea turtles. You can also see more than 50 African penguins waddling through Penguin Park – there are only 5,000 African penguins left in the world.

Adventure Aquarium’s mission is to bring families together to create memories – and part of that is learning about what makes sea creatures so special and how everyone can be part of preserving them for the future. These educational efforts, Deese says, are what turns the aquarium from a fun afternoon out to an experience that makes a lasting impact.

 

Elyse & Caden (and Button)

Quite the Adventure

My nephew Caden is a big hippo guy. I’m not being rude, even though he is abnormally big for his age. (I’m talking the 100th percentile for his height and 95th for head size.) I mean the kid really, really loves hippos.

So the moment he and I walked through the doors of Adventure Aquarium, he ran. My sister has an annual pass, so he’s been there more times than he could count (which isn’t saying much since he’s 2, so maybe more times than I could count.) You’d think the 2 hippos swimming along a massive habitat wouldn’t be so exciting the 100th time you’ve seen them. You’d think wrong.

Caden started on the edge of the exhibit, where the ramp slopes down from above water level to below. He stood on his tiptoes to see the hippos from above, just gray shapes shifting through the water. He ran down to below the water line to catch them swimming, then ran back up again and then down one last time for good measure. He pressed his hands tight on the glass of the floor-to-ceiling windows that let you see the entire enclosure underwater, screaming as soon as one of the hippos – Button and Genny – came swimming by, only to get sad and say “come back” every time they swam away. The rest of the time he spent saying “hippo” softly under his breath on repeat. The kid never stopped talking. I had no idea he even knew that many words.

I can’t say I paid much attention to the hippos – I was focused so completely on how ridiculously happy my nephew was running back and forth to be as close as possible to these 3,000 lb creatures. He was screaming and laughing and sometimes grabbing my hand so I could run with him. And at that moment I knew I’d never take him to another aquarium – when he finds out that Adventure Aquarium is the only aquarium in the world with hippos, he’s not going to be happy.

Caden is my first nephew – my oldest sister’s son, and the first niece/nephew and grandkid born on both sides of his family. He’s cute, he’s loved, and he absolutely knows it. He has a big personality and a lot of opinions. And most of those opinions have to do with animals.

Everything he owns is animal themed – from the books on his shelves to the toys he plays with. So for his 2nd birthday, I asked my sister if I could take him to Adventure Aquarium. I spent the entire ride to Camden slipping him whale-shaped sugar cookies I baked for him the night before because, yes it was 10 am, but he’s not my kid and I don’t have to deal with the crash afterward.

Being an aunt really is the best.

Caden led the charge, only stopping to notice me when he needed a boost up for a better view or he wanted to show me something especially awesome – like the eels slithering through rocks. He waddled like a penguin and wasn’t phased when he got his entire shirt sleeve wet dunking his little hand into the water to touch the stingrays. The only time he stopped grinning was when he tiptoed across the shark bridge, keeping his fists held tightly against his eyes the whole time – even though he ran back to have me walk it with him 3 more times.

As we ran around the aquarium in a way that’s just not appropriate for a 25-year-old woman on her own, it was the first time I really felt like an aunt.

It’s not something he’s going to remember when he’s older – not this particular trip to celebrate his 2nd birthday, at least. But it’s one I know I won’t forget.

– Elyse Notarianni

 

Sea Creature Fun Facts

Scientists have only explored 5 percent of the world’s ocean – and even that leaves us with more than enough interesting tidbits about what lives under the sea. Adventure Aquarium marine biologist Sam Ehinger shares a few of her favorite fun facts about her underwater pals.

Turtles love to bite things. “They aren’t as highly-intelligent as some other creatures, so they like to inspect with their mouths,” she says. “Unfortunately, their beaks are also really sharp.”

Octopuses are colorblind, but they have the ability to change colors to blend in with their surroundings.

When sharks sleep, they can only rest one half of their brain at a time. “They still need to breathe and swim and be on alert,” says Ehinger. “So you’ll never see them with their eyes closed. They’ll float through the habitat almost like they’re in a daydream or like someone dozing off in a morning meeting.”

Speaking of sharks, most sharks can swim up to 20-40 miles an hour.

 

Listen Up

Want to know more about your favorite aquarium creatures? Just grab a pair of headphones. Adventure

Aquarium just launched a free audio tour called “Action for Animals” for guests to listen while they make their way through exhibits. Keep an eye out for QR codes on exhibit signs to hear how the spiky red lionfish is invading the Atlantic Ocean or even how activity in the Delaware River, along Camden’s waterfront, impacts the Atlantic Ocean. You can also learn more fun facts about the aquarium’s conservation efforts and partners.

Each segment is narrated by one of the aquarium’s staff telling stories about their favorite animals, their importance to the ecosystem and the challenges they face.

And the most exciting part? The audio tour is now a permanent part of the aquarium’s exhibits, so listen up!

July 2021
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