Starting today, you can go to Toronto's new aquarium if you want to. (As long as you've got 30 bucks.)
The most exciting parts of any aquarium visit are the close encounters with giant, dimension-x-looking sea creatures with weird faces, and Toronto’s Ripley’s Aquarium, which had its grand opening this morning, provides plenty of those.
A wall-sized tank near the entrance contains a dizzying array of great lakes fish, including weird ones like the longnose gar, with its pterodactyl-like mouth. A display of lobsters has not only normal, good-with-butter-and-coleslaw-type lobsters, but also rare, blue lobsters, as well as century-old lobsters so enormous that their football-sized claws look like they could snap steel cables. In another part of the building, a green sawfish suctioned to the wall of a tank looks as if its mother was a stingray and its father was a hedge trimmer.
The ribbon-cutting ceremony included Ripley’s President Jim Pattison Jr., Liz Tory (John Tory’s mom, who apparently played a role in convincing the Pattisons to build the aquarium), and Mayor Rob Ford. At one point, Michael Chan, Ontario’s minister of tourism, culture, and sport, took the podium to give his usual five minutes’ worth of congratulations on behalf of Queen’s Park. “Beyond the water, the tanks, [the aquarium] is more things, too,” said Chan. “It’s education. It’s conservation. Just like Toronto Zoo. Just like the AGO or the ROM. Thousands and thousands of students will have the opportunity to come here.”
Chan is right that the new aquarium will be thrilling and enlightening for young visitors. It’s a colourful, entertaining place, with lots of interactive displays, including some brightly painted playground-like equipment and a touch tank filled with horseshoe crabs. A giant wing full of displays with undulating jellyfish is so awesome that parents are practically going to have to peel their inquisitive children off the glass.
But to say that this aquarium is anything like the AGO, the ROM, or the Toronto Zoo is a stretch. Those places use public dollars, and they have public missions. By contrast, adult visitors to the Ripley’s Aquarium will notice that it seems to have been built as a sort of amusement park. Atmospheric music blares from hidden speakers inside and outside the building, and coloured stage lighting follows you wherever you go. Many of the tanks are outfitted with fake-looking imitation coral reefs rather than the more naturalistic backdrops used at places like Boston’s New England Aquarium (where, incidentally, adult admission is $25, as opposed to the $29.98 Ripley’s is charging). The centrepiece of the aquarium is literally a ride: visitors step onto what looks like an airport baggage-claim conveyer belt and allow it to carry them through a 96-metre underwater tunnel while sharks and other creatures soar above their heads. Ripley’s seems like a great birthday-party venue, but it doesn’t have as much to offer adults.
Some cities have aquariums that are great research institutions, or great promoters of public awareness of issues facing marine life. Toronto’s, meanwhile, seems destined to become another fence for the ever-growing tourist holding pen between Spadina Avenue and Bay Street south of Front Street—which also includes the CN Tower and the three Centres (Air Canada, Metro Toronto Convention, and Rogers).
But the fish are really cool! Seriously, they are. Click through the image gallery for a look.