Florida’s unique shape and placement on the globe gives it an abundance of both freshwater and saltwater ecosystems, many of which are the only such habitats in the world. The state is home to an incredible array of aquatic plants and animals, and its warmth and humidity make it a good home for animals from similar climates around the world as well.
While some daring souls might venture into the Florida wilderness to catch a glimpse of wildlife, there are many aquariums in the state that present both native wildlife and animals from around the world in a much safer and conservation-conscious manner. To help you in your search for the perfect place to visit, we’ve narrowed the list down to just the very best aquariums in Florida.
If you’re traveling to the bay area, you might be on the lookout for aquariums in Tampa, Florida, and the Florida Aquarium is definitely the best in the area! Its grand claim to fame is that it’s the biggest aquarium in Florida, with a campus that sprawls across 250,000 square feet of land.
Being the biggest comes with some impressive installments, such as a 500,000 gallon coral reef habitat that is home to eels, rays, and hundreds of fish visible in a panoramic view. This aquarium is also the only aquarium in the southeastern United States where guests can touch jellies! The aquarium’s Moon Bay habitat holds moon jellies, and while touching them and marveling at the translucent beauty of these animals as they’re illuminated with colorful lights, you’ll learn from an animal care expert about why they’re jellies and not jellyfish.
For an intriguing look at invertebrates, check out the No Bone Zone, where you’ll learn about animals with no skeletons at all, including anemones, sea stars, and more. And for a peek at some landlubbing critters, head to the Journey to Madagascar section, where there are plenty of fish but also lemurs, insects, and frogs to learn about.
Gulf World Marine Park
While the Florida Panhandle’s claims to fame are mostly beaches and bars, there are some hidden gems if you know where to look. One of those is Gulf World Marine Park, the finest of the aquariums in Panama City Beach, Florida.
One of the biggest draws to Gulf World is its assortment of resident marine mammals. Harbor seals, California sea lions, and both bottlenose dolphins and rough-toothed dolphins all swim through the waters of this partially indoor, partially outdoor aquarium park. The park even offers add-on experiences where guests can get up close and personal to meet these beautiful creatures, along with other animals such as penguins and stingrays.
The park is also home to the Gulf World Marine Institute, which works in wildlife rescue and rehabilitation, along with conservation efforts and education. If you’d like to help, you can participate in their Adopt a Sea Turtle program. You’ll receive a photo of the sea turtle you helped rehabilitate, a certificate of adoption, and information on the species and characteristics of your sea turtle. It’s a fantastic way to help the facility’s efforts to save wildlife and can be a great keepsake or a gift to someone who loves the ocean.
Sea Life Aquarium
Sea Life Aquarium is an international organization and has gained experience and knowledge from running aquariums around the world. As a result, their many locations are fantastic places for both visiting guests and resident animals. This means that the Central Florida location is absolutely the top choice for aquariums in Orlando, Florida, with big, beautiful habitats for their animals and incredible production value in their visitor spaces.
The Sea Life Orlando location boasts Florida’s only 360° Ocean Tunnel, where visitors can walk through and be completely surrounded by thousands of gallons of salt water and the resident fish, rays, and sharks. An area called the Coastal Rockpool provides an opportunity to learn about animals such as anemones and sea stars, and even touch them if you’re brave enough! And while jellies need very specific conditions to live healthy lives and are therefore relatively rare in smaller aquariums, at Sea Life Orlando there’s an entire wall turned into a gigantic jelly habitat. It’s filled with moon jellies and backlit with colorful lights that you could get the chance to control, making the jellies glow in your favorite colors.
While many aquariums have both indoor and outdoor spaces to best accommodate their animals’ needs, the Sea Life Orlando location doesn’t have many animals that require an outdoor habitat. This means that almost the entire visitor experience is indoors, making this particular aquarium an excellent option to escape the Florida heat or thunderstorms.
Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium
Located just minutes away from famous white sands and plenty of shopping and dining, the Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium is a pride and joy of the Sarasota, Florida, science and education communities alike.
Many locals will tell you that the most iconic residents at Mote are the two manatees. Named Hugh and Buffett, these large, graceful mammals have contributed tons of information to the scientific community about everything from manatee sight and hearing to navigation skills and body temperature. The manatees have lived at Mote since 1996 and are often a favorite stop for children’s field trips.
Another once-in-a-lifetime exhibit worth checking out is Molly the Mollusk, a preserved 27-foot-long giant squid that was accidentally caught by a fishing trawler and donated to Mote in 1999. While the squid’s exhibit does sometimes travel to other locations, Molly always eventually comes back home to Mote. With other animals including sharks, sea turtles, and otters on display, and special immersive kids’ experiences available, this aquarium has something for everyone.
If that’s not impressive enough, something many people don’t know about Mote is that some of the most experienced dolphin experts in the world have spent time researching with Mote. Much of what we know about how to protect and conserve wild Atlantic bottlenose dolphins is thanks to the analysis that has been conducted through Mote. While your visit will be chock-full of fun and discovery, you can also know that the price of your ticket helps support continued efforts to understand marine ecosystems and the threats they face every day.
As with all locations along international trade routes, South Florida is filled with art, music, history, and food formed over decades of different cultures mingling. But being so close to the waters of the Caribbean, animal lovers often want to interact with the wildlife that swims just off the coast. While the Marine Mammal Protection Act prevents people from approaching wild dolphins, you can still swim with dolphins in Miami! At the Miami Seaquarium, visitors can participate in an add-on experience that will have them up-close and personal with the resident bottlenose dolphins.
That’s not the only thing that makes this the most popular aquarium in Miami, Florida, though. Guests can also swim with harbor seals, meet African penguins, and even go on a VIP tour to meet many different animals. And the Seaquarium has other cetaceans besides just bottlenose dolphins. Both Pacific white-sided dolphins and orcas also reside at the facility, giving visitors a unique opportunity to view all three species in the same day.
Another fantastic experience at the Seaquarium is the Tropical Wings area, where multiple bird species including macaws, cockatoos, and African Grays live and animal care experts are available to answer questions about some of the most intelligent birds on earth. This is also where the stingrays live, and you’ll have the chance to feel the rays glide under your fingertips.
Key West Aquarium
The Florida Keys are a popular destination, with visitors coming to snorkel, visit famous sites like the Hemingway House, and enjoy a beachy island retreat. But if you’re looking for aquariums in Key West, Florida, look no further than the Key West Aquarium. They have animals representing much of the local marine wildlife, such as nurse sharks, moon jellies, and conchs.
One of the cooler sections of the aquarium is the Scavengers of the Deep, where visitors can see giant isopods in a recreation of its natural ecosystem at 7,000 feet below the ocean’s surface. Found at the bottom of three oceans and four times larger than its surface counterparts, this creature can grow to be up to a foot and a half in length.
For visitors more interested in animals closer to the surface, the Key West Aquarium is home to four sea turtles of different species: a Kemp’s ridley, a green, a loggerhead, and a hawksbill. All four of the sea turtles have been rescued, and while they cannot survive in the wild, they help educate visitors about sea turtle conservation. Two of them even have prosthetic flippers to help them swim!
Gulfarium Marine Adventure Park
Okaloosa Island on the Florida Panhandle is surrounded by resorts and spas, world-class shopping, and tons of fresh seafood. The island itself is known for lots of activity centers such as arcades, minigolf, and go-karts, plus a rich nightlife augmented by the local zoning board’s placement of bars and clubs. But in the 1950s, Okaloosa Island wasn’t much more than a place to put the highway, and one of the very first attractions built was Gulfarium Marine Adventure Park. An iconic landmark and a symbol of local history, the Gulfarium still delights visitors every day.
While touring through the park, keep an eye out for Charlie, the yellow-crested cockatoo who takes a walk around the park with members of animal care staff every day to greet guests and visit other park residents. Some of these residents include seals, sea lions, otters, penguins, and a whole pod of bottlenose dolphins in two fully equipped dolphin habitats. Inside the Living Seas, you’ll get the chance to view the world’s first floor-to-ceiling commercial aquarium display and come face-to-face with lionfish, clownfish, eels, and a blacktip reef shark.
The Gulfarium is located just a two-minute walk away from public access to Fort Walton Public Beach, and the Gulf of Mexico is visible from almost anywhere in the park. This makes it a great backup if you’ve been rained out of your beach plans. You’ll still want to bring an umbrella or a raincoat, as winds off the ocean can still push rain in under the covered walkways, but you’ll have enough shelter to enjoy watching the animals swim and play. The dolphin and sea lion shows, and all animal encounters, also continue rain or shine so long as there is no lightning, so a ruined beach day can turn into an animal-filled adventure.
IMAG History and Science Center
Many state residents will tell you that there is no aquarium in Fort Myers, Florida, and they’d technically be correct, as there are no establishments in the city that are focused solely on aquatic life. However, if you’re Fort Myers–bound and on the hunt for a place to view some fish, the IMAG History and Science Center certainly won’t disappoint.
As you might guess by the name, the IMAG is a full-fledged science and history museum with hands-on elements and a goal to immerse visitors in learning and fun. The museum’s Hall of History has tons of artifacts from the past of Southwest Florida, the Backyard Nature exhibit has an outdoor walkway for guests to learn about Florida plants, and exhibits on weather, physics, and World War II are all available to view. But there are a ton of aquarium-focused activities, too, and lots of great aquatic life.
The SEA-to-See Touch Tank holds horseshoe crabs, yellow spotted stingrays, sea stars, shrimp, and more. Visitors can even touch the animals, and hourly demonstrations by animal care staff will provide a chance to ask questions. Guests can even reserve tickets to watch staff feed the animals and learn what all these critters eat. In the Living Lab, guests can also view lots of snakes, lizards, frogs, and more and discover the important difference between native and non-native species. The Living Lab is also home to a 3,200 gallon saltwater aquarium that was featured on the popular TV channel Animal Planet. Here, sharks, grouper, and tons of other fish swim through a miniature replica of a sunken warship that lies off the Florida coast and creates an artificial reef that shelters many species of wild marine life.
Clearwater Marine Aquarium
If you or people in your life happened to be watching wholesome, feel-good children’s movies in the early 2010s, then you’ll likely be familiar with Dolphin Tale and Dolphin Tale 2. However, what you might not know is that the star dolphin, Winter, was a real Atlantic bottlenose dolphin who resided in an aquarium in Clearwater, Florida. At the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, visitors can visit her costar, Hope.
Hope is more than just a movie star. She is also a great ambassador to help the public learn about threats wild dolphins face and how humans can work together to protect the dolphins that live in the oceans. Hope was rescued as a calf when a fisherman noticed her attempting to nurse from her dead mother, and was hungry, exhausted, and too young to fend for herself. The Clearwater Marine Aquarium team worked tirelessly to bring her back to health.
There are lots of other amazing animals at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, too. Rex and Rudy are two resident rescued rough-toothed dolphins who have hearing loss and cannot survive in the wild. There are also sea turtles, otters, and pelicans. Visitors can learn about the many rescues and ongoing rehabilitation efforts that the aquarium engages in.
If you fall in love with the animals while you’re there and wish you could watch them all the time, you’ll want to visit the aquarium’s website and look for its live webcams, through which you can watch many of its animals enjoy their daily lives at the facility.
Marine Science Center
Just south of Daytona Beach lies Ponce Inlet, a little beachside town with a lighthouse, a museum, and a handful of marinas and locally owned businesses. It’s here that you’ll find a hidden gem, the Marine Science Center. Listed as a “small aquarium with educational programs,” this facility is easy to overlook and mostly known to locals. However, the location’s hard work in marine conservation, knowledgeable staff, and great hands-on experiences make it a must-see stop when traveling down Florida’s east coast.
The Classroom Lab is one of the most interesting parts of the aquarium. Here, live reptile and bird presentations are held daily. The classroom also houses live residents, such as a pine snake and a box turtle, and many preserved specimens, so visitors can get involved and feel anaconda skin, touch coral, and even view a loggerhead sea turtle shell. There are also arts and crafts classes, and the space can be used to house special education events for school field trips.
Another section of the aquarium you’ll definitely want to check out is the Blue Room, where many habitats house smaller aquatic life. Here, you’ll get to come face-to-face with a seahorse and learn about how lionfish are an invasive species and why they’re dangerous for native wildlife. Guests will also get to view eight hospital habitats for rescued sea turtles undergoing rehabilitation and watch as the expert rescue team works to nurse the sick and injured endangered species back to health so that they can be returned to the wild. Nearby, the Turtle Terrace includes a 3D display on how sea turtles lay their nests, hatch, and begin life in the wild, and what threats they face in the ocean every day.
Whether you have a love of marine life, are interested in learning about all things science, or are just looking for a place in Florida where you can catch a break from the summer heat, the best Florida aquariums have something for everyone to enjoy. Add an aquarium to your trip itinerary, and it’ll definitely be an experience to remember.
Winter passed away on Veterans day