Vibrant colors dazzled a crowd in New Orleans as marching bands and Mardi Gras Indians performed in a jamboree for NOLA locals and tourists. The city of New Orleans celebrated the grand reopening of Audubon Aquarium on June 8 after a $41 million renovation, the first major renovation of the aquarium in 30 years. While this ceremony was certainly a spectacle, celebration is not scarce in New Orleans.
Throughout the city, locals will speak with both sorrow and pride of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Destroying hundreds of thousands of homes, the hurricane resulted in a decrease of over half of the population of New Orleans. Tragedy has followed the city since its inception, having been burned down by two major fires in the late 1700s. However, the city and its people triumph time and time again, rebuilding infrastructure and regaining economic stability through tourism and other industries. It is likely due to its resilience in the face of tragedy that New Orleans takes no opportunity to celebrate for granted, and the aquarium’s renovation is the city’s most recent victory in its comeback trajectory.
At the Audubon Aquarium, guests can meet critters old and new, from the oldest resident of the aquarium, a 70-something year old sea turtle named Mydas, to the youngest resident, Titan, a baby penguin who hatched this past February.
Showcasing local animals of Louisiana, a section called “Down the Bayou” begins with a toothy American Alligator who smiles at guests, wishing them a warm welcome. Here, other animals of the bayou, like a Razorback Musk Turtle, a Speckled Kingsnake, and a Barred Owl named Frosty, can be found in their habitat enclosures. Locals will be familiar with many of these creatures, but most will be exotic to tourists traveling from other states and countries.
At “Amazon Encounters,” guests are immersed with 12 species of South American avian attractions. These birds fill the room with a cacophony of calls, allowing a guest to close their eyes and imagine that they are being transported to the rainforest. Included with these Amazon wonders is a sloth exhibit, where guests can see and physically interact with the slow-moving and sleepy mammal. Fun fact: a sloth’s ears, while hidden behind coarse hair, look eerily human!
The bulk of aquatic life at the aquarium is in the “Gulf of Mexico” exhibit, which holds 400,000 gallons of water to accommodate a variety of sharks, sting rays (guests can feel their smoothness in a touch tank), schools of fish, and more. Both a top view and a more immersed view at the bottom of the main tank, which includes the aforementioned sea turtle Mydas, put this cast of aquatic life on display, almost hypnotizing viewers with the sublime vastness of it.
Each November, the aquarium is visited by a school of mermaids, who dazzle guests with their colorful tails and bubbly-blown kisses. While the entirety of the attractions are kid friendly, this event in particular warrants a trip to New Orleans with the family.
Other sections of the aquarium worthy of honorable mention include an African Penguin exhibit (hello, baby Titan!), jellyfish tanks, and even a set of Virtual Reality booths that adults and children can use to explore the sea’s depths while resting their feet in the impressive VR pods.
Now relocated to the same building as the aquarium is the Audubon Insectarium. Here, guests are walked through interactive learning modules to educate them on the importance of conservation of insects and the value they offer our ecosystems, before entering a more open section to appreciate and explore the complex anatomies of various insects, including millipedes, beetles, superworms, and much more.
Viewable from the entrance of the aquarium, a window teases the new Butterfly Garden, an immersive room with hundreds of butterflies and flowers; inside, it is fairly common for a butterfly to land on guests if they are wearing attractive colors like bright red.
Guests can also enjoy a buggy snack at Bug Appétit, a cafe that serves standard food along with cooked insects like ‘Crispy Cajun Crickets’ and ‘Cinnamon Bug Crunch.’ These bugs are prepared by entomologist and famed “Bug Chef” Zack Lemann. If guests are particularly lucky, they may even hear Lemann’s musical rap about the nutritious value of insects.
Throughout the insectarium, there are entomologists and experts stationed at Field Camps, where guests can ask for more information about particular insects or even touch them. One particularly exciting tactile experience is to caress along the back of the Giant African Millipede, which feels much harder than one anticipates.
Guests exploring both the aquarium and the insectarium should plan on 1.5–3 hours, with pricing options varying depending on the age of the guests and how many of the associated attractions they’d like to visit. Tickets can be bought online.
The hospitality within the Audubon Aquarium and Insectarium matches that of most of New Orleans: top notch. From the grinning alligator, to the entomologist staff members, to the rapping Bug Chef, this cast of characters welcomes tourists to come celebrate the renovation of the facility, along with the rejuvenation of the resilient and lively city of New Orleans.
Cover photo courtesy Audubon Nature Institute
John Snyder is a graduate of Emerson College’s Publishing & Writing master’s program, and works full time in book publishing in Boston, MA.