It’s true — I have the best job in the world. Sometimes I have so much fun I forget I’m working. That happened in Jenks last weekend on a visit to the Oklahoma Aquarium.
This special attraction on the banks of the Arkansas River is home to hundreds of species from tiny anemones rooted to rocks to giant sharks that circle tirelessly in a half-million gallon tank. Visitors go from one exhibit to another, ooohing and aaahing at the amazing variety of life forms.
Walking through the large, open lobby, one turns right into a long, dimly lit, blue tinted hallway that gives an illusion of an underwater environment. Being, in one of my many incarnations, a biology major, I love the fact that the aquarium offers lots of scientific information. The first exhibit area starts with some of the simplest animals — Porifera (sponges) and Cnidaria (jellyfish and sea anemones). These may not be biologically complex but they display a wide variety of colors and shapes — a veritable undersea garden that would make Monet envious.
A second area explores adaptations for survival. I loved the tiny peacock flounder, which, when still, was invisible on the sand and pebble bottom of the aquarium.
This little flatfish has both tiny bulging eyes on the topside of its body. It keeps one eye on the background, controlling its ability to blend in. And blend it does.
The stonefish also uses camouflage as a protective device. If that fails, it’s also able to release a deadly toxin. The highly poisonous lionfish, like the monarch butterfly, uses distinctive coloration to warn away predators.
The newest exhibit at the aquarium is Extreme Amazon. As you might expect, it features fish from the vast South American watershed. Species range from freshwater stingrays to arapaima, air-breathing fish that can reach up to 10 feet long and 400 pounds. The coolest things about this exhibit — and most frustrating for grown ups — are the crawl tunnels that allow small children to tunnel into and pop up in the middle of the exhibit. I was wearing a skirt, which reduced the temptation to give it a try — that and the fear of getting stuck and winding up on YouTube!
Aquatic Oklahoma features creatures indigenous to our area. A turtle feeding station was drawing a large crowd of children plus parents with cameras, but I beelined for one of my favorite tanks, the one holding the paddlefish. These big fish have long paddle-shaped snouts (called a rostrum) and mouths that open like garage doors. They’re filter feeders who swim through the water with their mouths gaping, taking in water and filtering the tiny organisms on which they feed.
When they’re not feeding, they still look interesting but when they open their mouths, they’re amazing.
In this same area is the aquarium’s most venerable inhabitant, a 122-pound alligator snapping turtle. It is estimated that this turtle hatched in the 1880s, making it well over a century old. Between the paddlefish, the turtle and the huge catfish in the next tank, you may want to rethink that next swim in an Oklahoma river.
The Hayes Family Ozark Stream stars have to be the otters. The stayed busy diving, sliding, splashing and playing until they saw a keeper head outside with a bowl. Then they disappeared leaving guests to assume there was an out-of-sight dining room. Other animals in this area include beavers and raccoons.
One of the aquarium’s most aaah-inspiring spots is the Siegfried Families Shark Adventure.
This includes the shark’s tank walk-through acrylic tunnel. While fascinating, I do think the tank seems rather sterile. Other aquariums I’ve visited have offered a bit more set dressing whether with rocks or other structures in their shark exhibits or even other fish in with the sharks. Still, it’s pretty cool to see a shark swim over your head.
Rather than having all the bright little fish in the giant coral reef tank, many of them have been moved to smaller aquaria. While these allow visitors a better view, the effect of the larger display has suffered. The day I visited the water looked murky and the fish in that tank were not particularly colorful.
I must say, even with my small complaints, the Oklahoma Aquarium is most definitely worth a visit. The tanks of jellies and the seahorses are a great treat in the last room. And the under construction sea turtle visit will make the experience even more satisfying. Touch pools and feeding demonstrations add zing to the zoology.
The Aquarium celebrates its 10th anniversary this year July 26-27 with special guest Jean Michel Cousteau. Look for more details in the future.
The Oklahoma Aquarium is in Jenks, just about 90 miles from Edmond. It is open from 10 a.m. until 6 p.m. daily; Tuesdays it stays open until 9 p.m. Admission, $13.95 for adults; children 3-12, $9.95. There are reductions for seniors and members of the military and children under 3 are admitted free. Check with web site, www.okaquarium.org for the feed show schedule, driving directions and other information.
ELAINE WARNER is a travel writer based in Edmond.