Residents of the Washington, D.C.-metro area have long hung their heads in shame because they have to go to Baltimore if they want to visit a good aquarium. And pay $40 to get in. Stuff here is free! We’re not used to paying! Adding insult to injury, it calls itself The National Aquarium. Never mind it’s 35 miles from the D.C. border.

All of this didn’t stop me from hopping in my car and sneaking off to Baltimore for some up-close encounters with sea creatures this past Presidents Day.

I usually won’t set foot in any public place that caters to children on a school holiday, but it was the only time my schedule allowed. It seems that not arriving until 1 p.m. is the secret — we had no trouble getting a turn to press our noses up against the glass for a better view of the poison dart frogs and sawfish.

You may be able to use the timed-entry ticket feature on the aquarium’s website to figure out when its least likely to be crowded. Apparently, despite the cost — $39.95 per adult, $25.95 per child 3-11 and $34.95 for seniors 65 and over — it is necessary to offer timed-entry tickets to ensure visitors can even get in. As you scroll through the offered times, you’ll see more are available in the afternoon. I guess most people think they’ll come in the morning and stay all day to get their money’s worth, but their feet get tired after a couple of hours and they head over to Bubba Gump’s, leaving plenty of room for you and your party to get up close and personal with the octopus.

Image result for national aquariumThe aquarium is truly one delight after another, but a longtime favorite of many loyal visitors is the Atlantic Coral Reef, a 335,000-gallon, 13-foot-deep pool of 500 types of fish, including some sharks and eels. Directly beneath this is the 225,000-gallon shark tank, which includes several species of sharks, as well as some stingrays. Both oversized exhibits can be viewed from the long, circular ramp that brings visitors down from the fifth floor.

An exhibit you don’t want to miss is Jellies Invasion — it’s like a real-life screensaver! Tanks of nine species of jellyfish glide slowly and noiselessly through the clear water, their translucent bodies mesmerizing, yet frightening.

Photo by George Grall

At the Living Seashore, children and adults can touch horseshoe crabs, stingrays and jellyfish (just the round parts, not the tentacles).

You can stop in to the Dolphin Discovery exhibit anytime during your visit and watch the dolphins swimming around or playing with balls. There aren’t any more “shows” though, (remember what happened at SeaWorld), but you can listen to a Keeper Talk, or for an extra $225, you can participate in a Dolphin Encounter.

But it’s not just fish you can see at the aquarium — it’s reptiles, mammals and birds, too.

The Upland Tropical Rain Forest challenges visitors to find the exhibits in the trees. The scarlet ibises are easier to find than the sloths. On the day I went, one golden lion tamarin in particular was easy to find, partly because it so kindly attempted to make our experience authentic by sending down a warm stream of urine from the tree branch above.

Such experiences are not to be missed, so if you have a big family and the price is too high, you’re in luck! This Friday, March 3, is half-price Friday night. Explore the whole aquarium from 5 to 9:30 p.m. for half price!

If you’re a huge aFISHionado, get a membership. A family membership is $175 for unlimited entry for a year. Plus, you get other exciting benefits such as discounts on food, drinks and souvenirs, and admission to members-only night, when the museum is closed to everyone except members, and you get to see the 4-D movies for free!

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