The Waikiki Aquarium Critter Encounter

IMG_0654I have lived on Oahu for over 9 years and somehow I’ve never made a trip to the Waikiki Aquarium… until now. When Moms In Hawaii reached out to me to see if I’d be interested in reviewing the Critter Encounter at the Waikiki Aquarium, I jumped at the opportunity. Our family has participated in reef walks twice, visited the Living Art Marine Center a few times, and we regularly explore the creatures in our local Hawaiian waters. So I guess you could say I wasn’t expecting to learn much new information on this visit to the aquarium. My girls were excited, of course, but I figured we wouldn’t be adding much to the base knowledge we’ve acquired over the years of these little critters. Fortunately, I was very, very wrong!

IMG_0662Mary, our critter connoisseur and guide, met us soon after our arrival and escorted us to the touch pools. As we walked she spoke a little about the aquarium’s two resident seals, stopping to let the girls watch them swim around. She answered all of Bean’s questions then continued to lead us to the touch pools tucked away at the back of the park. We felt quite special being led into the “Authorized Personnel Only” area, which by the way, highlighted the beauty of the location. Just look at that view! Aquarium trip followed by beach day, anyone?

Once inside, Mary took a few minutes to give Bean and Bella a little teaser about what they would be seeing during our encounter and the rules they’d need to follow. She went over what kinds of critters they’d be allowed to touch, hold, and even feed. She primed their little brains quite well and didn’t just tell them the basics, but instead spoke about the details, what made the critters alike and different. Next, clearly knowing how intimidating it might be for a child to get up the nerve to touch at a living sea urchin, she showed them a shell and spines while explaining that they had once been a part of a living sea urchin.

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Bean touched the shell of a sea urchin, as well as a fallen spine. Mary showed how the spine was once attached to the urchin.

Next, we went to the sea urchin touch pool to see the real Mccoy, alive and well. First, Mary encouraged the girls to just touch the spines and observe their movement. Then, as she explained more about where and how sea urchins live, she showed picked up a live one for them to hold and examine more closely. She pointed out the other living creatures in the pool, including a few sea cucumbers, (one of which was actively eating the sand-so cool to see!). Next, she showed the girls how the sea urchins eat algae by placing a small piece on the spines. The girls watched, mesmerized, as the sea urchin slowly moved its spines and tube feet to get that little piece of algae down to its underside, where its mouth is located. Mary asked them if they’d like to help her feed the urchins, and boy were the girls excited for that!

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I especially enjoyed watching how Mary got my big kid to touch the sea urchin. Bean had recently warmed up to touching a bit more sea life, but was holding out on the sea urchins, understandably so. I mean, who would want to touch something that looks so darn sharp! The process in which Mary presented the task was one that helped Bean really warm up to the idea. First touching a spine that was no longer alive, then being offered to touch a living one (Bean refused), and finally being encouraged to “help” feed them. In no time, Bean had her hands in the pool, carefully placing the algae on those spines!

Next, we moved on to another pool to observe the hermit crabs. This time Bella refused to touch them, haha. But eventually she even held one too! It was very quick, but she was willing and comfortable… That is the power of learning in an intimate environment if I ever saw it. Mary explained many details about hermit crabs, about their anatomy, how and where they live, and what they eat. The girls had some time to just listen, ask questions, touch, and hold the little critters before Mary gave them some food cubes (made of vegetables and spirulina- who knew?!) to feed them. The girls agreed that watching the crabs fight over the food was quite entertaining! Head over to my Instagram account for video clips of the sea urchin and hermit crab feedings.

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After that, we headed to the final pool to see a variety of sea anemones. Again, Mary did a wonderful job explaining more about the sea anemones, which we had yet to learn about, as they are hard to find on our reef walks. Like the other critters on our visit, the girls were once again able to feed them. Both girls had the opportunity to feed a number of them, as well as watch Mary feed the few anemones that had strong stings. It fascinated me to learn that they eat shrimp! It is hard to imagine the same anemone that housed Nemo in Finding Nemo eating shrimp for dinner, but we observed the anemones using their tentacles to move the shrimp to their mouths and watched as they pushed the shrimp right in.

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In the final pool, we also learned about the brittle star, a variety of starfish. Little miss Bella got to gently hold it in her hand while Bean enjoyed just looking.

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Bella felt the brittle star wiggle in her hands.

Both girls asked their final questions about our encounter before Mary escorted us out of the critter encounter area and into the indoor portion of the aquarium. She took a few extra minutes to show us around inside, questioning the girls as we went along, answering our questions and acknowledging and expanding upon the random facts that Bean kept firing off. Mary was so patient with them, and really helped to keep them excited about what they were seeing. She mentioned that our short walk through isn’t always included in the critter encounter, but if time permits and your group requests it, it is a possibility. Being eager to learn and showing your excitement might help your case, too. 😉

I wish I could tell you all the details of what we learned on our visit so you could really understand how educational the trip was… But I think you really need to go see for yourself! It is well worth the extra $5 per person for the critter encounter. There was just so much more opportunity to learn, observe, connect, and experience with this critter encounter. I really enjoyed the intimate nature of the program. There isn’t a lot of room in the area where it is held, and for that reason, I’m sure the groups will most often be of reasonable size.

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Mary was so engaging!

On our visit, Bean and Bella were able to experience everything with the gentle guidance of Mary. Often on our homeschool field trips, my girls get distracted and don’t have a chance to really absorb the information being presented to them, on reef walks in particular. Between the crashing waves, shouting children, and concentration it takes to walk on the reef, we haven’t been able to learn nearly as much as we were able at the aquarium. On our Critter Encounter, my girls quickly felt comfortable with Mary and asked a million questions. She seemed to genuinely enjoy their inquiries and gave them clear answers without dumbing things down or using terminology that went over their heads. As a parent and teacher, I really appreciate that!

On our drive home, I had the girls write and draw in their science journals about what they saw, learned, and enjoyed. We discussed each critter and they helped each other choose details to add to their pictures and I spelled out the creature names for them as I drove. On our next trip to the library, we will check out some books on the topic such as Life in a Coral Reef, Coral Reefs, Sea UrchinsStar of the Sea, Clown Fish and Sea Anemones Work Togetherand A House for Hermit CrabIt was just too easy to incorporate this trip into our homeschool. If you are a homeschool family on Oahu, or just a family looking for some educational fun, I highly recommend you get over to the aquarium and get in on their Critter Encounters!

Tips for your visit:

  • Arrive early and bring change for the parking meters. There is plenty of street parking, but it is metered.
  • Ask about how all the critters relate to the number five during your visit. You’ll be impressed!
  • Stick around after your encounter to watch the seals during their feeding time, right around 10am.
  • Wear sunscreen so you can comfortably explore the beautifully manicured grounds, where you can find more sea creatures and educational material.
  • When you explore inside the aquarium, look very, very, VERY closely at all the displays. You might miss the coolest parts if you don’t! For example, we observed a baby jellyfish as tiny as a pin head floating in what looked like an empty display. We also almost missed seeing a pregnant sea horse because he was camouflaged so well! (And yes, I said HE!)
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This is a candid shot! She was just that engrossed in the sea life!

You can purchase tickets for admission to the aquarium at $12 for adults (ages 13-64), $8 Kama’aina or active duty military with current local ID (ages 13-64), $5 for junior admission (ages 4-12), and $5 for seniors 65 years or older. Entry includes an Audio Tour Wand so you can have your own audio tour! They also offer memberships under the Friends Of the Waikiki Aquarium program in which you pay a yearly membership fee ($65 for the Family) and have free entry for the year.

Critter Encounter tickets can be purchased for an additional $5/per person directly through the aquarium website as well. Critter Encounters are generally offered on Mondays and Wednesdays from 9:30-10am and are geared toward children age 4 and up. Check the website for details and to buy tickets before your visit. Arrive early and take some time to explore the aquarium before beginning your tour. That way, you and your children can think up some good questions to ask your guide!

Mahalo to Waikiki Aquarium and Moms in Hawaii for the fantastic opportunity! It was a memorable experience that my girls will be talking about for years to come.

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