Ripley's Aquarium of Canada - First Visits!

Late in October, Toronto saw the Grand Opening of the brand new Ripley’s Aquarium of Canada! I was lucky enough to be gifted yearly passes to the Aquarium for Christmas but wanted to wait until the excitement of the new year died down a bit to pay my first first to Toronto’s newest attraction.

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First, let me say before we start off, I’m an aquarium buff! I go to one in every single city I visit. I’ve even been to an aquarium while in Paris of all places! (And for the record it was pretty neat, not the typical Aquarium but worth a peek if you’ve got some time to kill) So yes, I really love aquariums. There is something so soothing about them. They are an incredibly inspiring place as well. All those colours swirling around you, it always puts me in a creative mood.

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I was anxious about my first visit to the new Toronto Aquarium. I wanted to like it and I was really afraid I wouldn’t like it. And I’ll be really honest, when I first started walking through the place, I didn’t like it….but only at first. I think there was just so much hype and anticipation so me. I tried to go during the weekday when I thought it wouldn't be busy but it was JAM PACKED with school groups. I think the Aquarium is wonderful for kids and there are so many interactive elements that parents will love to walk their kids through but for me it was too over whelming with so many people there. So I decided to come back on the same day but later on the evening when I saw the crowds had died down and….it was AMAZING! It was like an entirely different place.

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I couldn’t believe how differently I felt about the whole place when I came back later on the evening. It felt open, you could see everything so clearly, you could hear the music playing throughout the space, the staff was available to give information and answer any questions you might have and even the fish seemed a little more active during the night time. So pro tip: if you’ve got kids, bring them in the day time. They’ll love running around with the other kids and getting to participate in the activities they have available during the day but if you’re a bunch of childless adults who adore aquariums and want a more relaxed atmosphere, go after a nice dinner, and you'll for you have the whole place to yourself. It closes at 9pm so as long as you arrive before 7:30pm you’ll have plenty of time to explore.

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When you enter the Aquarium, the first area you enter is the second floor viewing area that looks out over the Discovery centre as well as the underwater tunnel that you will get to walk through later on in the tour. Above the entrance are two huge whale skeletons hanging from the ceiling. The whole entry way is very grand and does feel very modern with almost art like installations throughout. Before you go into the first area and really begin the journey through the aquarium, there is a circular tank with a giant school of fish. It is a swirling vision of silver sparkles and is a great centrepiece for the main hall.

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The first exhibit area is, and rightly so, the Canadian Waters. It seems fitting as a good introduction to Ripley's Aquarium of Canada. In this first part you can see all sorts of different fish from (apparently) all over Canada. This terrified me. But was also mesmerizing. It's safe to say I'll never go swimming in lakes and oceans in Canada again. But to see them behind glass where they can't eat me, was really great. Makes you appreciate the amazing creatures we have living right here in Canada.

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Some of the most interesting fish to see are the Alewife, the Largemouth Bass, the GIANT American Lobster, the Wolf Eel, the Lumpfish, the Giant Pacific Octopus, and the China Rockfish.

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The Wolf Eel, one of the cool fish I've ever seen. But seriously, let's never go in the water again...
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Lump Fish. These guys are just about the cutest things I've ever seen! They just kinda hang out on the bottom of the lakes....lazy puppies

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After making your way through the Canadian Waters you come upon the swelling waves of the Pacific Kelp. This giant tank holds more than 360,000 litres of water and simulates the surge conditions of the British Columbia shoreline.

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From afar this tank is unbelievable. The fish simply bob up and down with the waves. They look unreal and only as you get closer and closer can you see them dart around from time to time and see that this is a living exhibit.

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The aquarium uses a giant wave maker to demonstrate the BC shoreline wave effects which are truly mesmerizing. Seriously if you stare at this thing for too long you yourself might start to bob up and down too.

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 Just off to the side of the the pacific kelp tanks, are two smaller exhibits featuring anemones and starfishes that also are to be found along the Canadian pacific coastlines. These tanks are beautifully designed and although devoid of fish, are still a beauty to look at. I would, as a comment, find a way to add a few fish to this tank, just to show how they interact with these other forms of sea life and to provide an added level of visual interest for the viewers.

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Next up, as we wind down the ramp and go deeper into the depths of the Aquarium, is the Rainbow Reef! This is what I was really looking forward to. And I was NOT disappointed! The second your eye spies the tank in the darkness around the corner, it is filled with a splash of bright colours, swirling rainbow fishes and almost mythical looking piles of coral. This exhibit features over 100 fantastical, tropical fish, the ones that we all have locked away in our minds as "our favourites". There is an absolute kaleidoscope of fishes that seem to appear, and disappear as quickly, among the multicoloured coral.

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Some of the most impressive fishes you can try and pick out of the crowd are the Picasso Triggerfish, Parrotfish, Emperor Angelfish and the Unicorn Surgeonfish. The vibrantly coloured corals, while naturally formed into the backdrop, is 100% artificial! Unbelievable! The Aquarium designers have done a fantastic job making it look as organic as possible and the fish are 100% convinced it's real.

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What I was really happy to see opposite this exhibit is a section of levelled seating. This is a rarity in some Aquariums since they tend to be scarce on space. But located, albeit a little far away from the tank, are a few rows of seating where you can plop down and just let the world fall away. This is provided mainly for the interactive dive show (more on that below) but when the shows aren't on it's almost always empty except for a few lone families grabbing a snack.

For those of us with yearly passes we need something like this. And I'll tell you why! Some of us get yearly passes because we want a unique creative space to come and visit to get inspired on a monthly basis. Some choose the AGO, some choose the ROM, but for me I was really hoping the Aquarium would be my new go to place and I'm happy to say it will be! Being able to skip the lines, come straight down here, sit down with a sketch pad or iPad and work for a bit is PERFECT! I haven't yet tried this out but I'm hoping they'll be cool with it.

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Be sure you ask when you get your ticket taken when the interactive dive show will be in because you will not want to miss out. A diver will come into the tank and give a little lecture to you and other visitors through a microphone in his scuba suit while in the tank through speaker outside the Aquarium. There is also a marine biologist inside to answer any other questions you might have after the diver leaves the tank. It's a great chance to experience a unique offering in the aquarium and learn more about the different type of sea life that inhabit this area of the world.

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Just to the right of the Rainbow Reef is the Dangerous Lagoon!!! This is the big attraction for visitors, it is the longest underwater aquarium tunnel in North America. I thought this might be a little crowded and would take away from the experience but even during busy hours, to avoid congestion they have installed a moving walkway that keeps traffic flowing but doesn't rush you along at all. It feel very natural. When I came at night, it was practically empty and it was one of the most amazing experiences. It is truly an immersive environment. I felt like Ariel for a moment there. In my underwater cave of treasures. Life long dream achieved. Can die happy.

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The tunnel snakes you The Shark Gallery which houses the show pieces of the Aquarium. Keep an eye out for sharks to your right, left and even right above you! You'll see Sand Tiger sharks, Sandbar Sharks and even the elusive Reef Sharks. I was amazed at the number of sharks as how much space they seemed to have to swim around. It was very impressive and well designed.

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One big daddy shark called the Sawfish Shark loves to sit on top of the tunnel and rest there so you'll never miss him! His really funny just lying there on top of the tunnels. Swimming around in the backdrop of exhibit are different specific of fishes, moray eels, stingrays, barracudas and more! But don't worry, they keep the sharks well fed so you won't see any live feedings... or so they tell me.

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I was luck enough both times I went to see the one of the two sea turtles they have housed in the gallery. They are such graceful creatures. So lovely. They tend to be a little shy and stick to the dark corners but occasionally I've seen them free swimming in the opens.

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There is over 2.5 MILLION litres of water filtered 24/7 into this tank to keep these animals happy and healthy. One of the largest aquariums I've ever see and with all the beautiful coral and structural designs it looks like something plucked straight from the ocean floor.

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After you finish within the tunnel you come out into the Discovery Centre. This is the area where, if you came with kids, they can really go nuts. And if you didn't come with kids, you can pass right by. It also is the area where the cafeteria is. I was really disappointed with the cafeteria. Not only is it really expensive (which I guess is expected) but it's small and the food is pretty boring. Considering there's nothing to eat right next door to the Aquarium it would have been nice if they would have spent a bit of extra care on this part...but I guess it can be improved down the line.

If yo do have kids and want to let them explore they do have a pretty neat play area all formed in the shapes of different aquatic animals. In the middle of the centre there is also a horseshoe crab touch tank where you can pet and learn more about these curious creatures.

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When I came in the morning with my friend and her daughter we had a really good time using the under water viewing peep tanks they had spread out in the Discovery Centre.

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You can crawl under the tanks and pop up to get a closer look at different Clownfish, Palette Surgeonfish, and Guineafowl Puffers.

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After you've finished in the Discovery Centre, it's time to move into The Gallery. The Gallery features a variety of severely endangered species from around the world. It gives in-depth educational information about the world's fragile eco-system with interesting interactive exhibits and beautiful protected animals.

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Red Lionfish
They have created wonderful recreations of the adaptive environments that help these unique creatures survive in the one of a kind habitats they live in in the wild. You'll get to feast your eyes on colourful, yet dangerous, pirañas, seahorses, sea dragons, cuttlefish (which have just had babies so go now to see cute little newborns!), electric eels and the magnificent Red Lionfish.

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After the gallery you'll also the Perfect Predators section. It gives you an comprehensive view of how sharks are born and develop, how they eat and digest food (as well as expel food they cannot process), and how they have grown to be the kings of the underwater jungle. You even get to see live baby sharks swimming inside their eggs before they're born!

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One of the more unique breeds of sharks on display is the Spotted Ratfish! I have been to ALOT of different aquariums but I've never seen this kind of fish before. It was sooo cool and I loved the write up on the history and it's resemblance to the mythological chimera! Below you can see it swimming and you can really see it's chimera aspects.

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Planet Jellies is next up on your tour and I have to say this was the the part of the Aquarium I was the most disappointed by. I think I've seen so many really original and dynamic takes of Jellyfish exhibitions over the past few years and so this sections just fell short for me. Sorry guys :( But I do feel like there's room for improvement! And in all honestly, it's really ok there's just not a lot to it. It just feels very flat. I think it doesn't deserve it's own dedicated area and if it were simply blended into the gallery maybe it would have felt a little more apart of the aquarium.

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The first exhibit is a wall of Pacific Sea Nettle Jellyfish with mirrors above and bellow the tank to give the appearance when you walk up to the tank of being surrounded by these beautiful, serene creatures. The tank is backlight with a colour changing displays which makes the jellyfish also change colour along with the light. It's a pretty neat effect but some of the colour don't really seem to effect the jellies and just make them look a bit muddy. I would overall rather see them under one consistently complimentary light then under shifting ones that don't really flatter the creatures.

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In the next set of tanks you'll see the various stages of Moon Jellyfish growth. This is a great educational experience. I learnt that the different stages of the jellyfish have different names. The baby stage is called polyp and when they grow into an adult they are called a medusa (all their new legs resembling Medusa's snakes). I loved this. So much mythology in maorinebiology!

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After you view the life cycle of the moon jellies you pass by a tank of Upside Down Jellyfish. This is a really unique specifies that I'd never seen before! Then you walk along the ramp towards the next room where you'll see a wall of smaller, Spotted Lagoon Jellyfish. This wall's lighting was simple and I'd rather see something like this done for the Pacific Nettles. It was lovely to see the beauty of the jellies emphasized against the minimalist background. But there was only about one or two large jellyfish to be seen and the rest were so small, almost too tiny to be seen. But I'm hoping over the years they'll grow into their exhibit :) Something to look forward to see next time I go!

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The last tank you get to experience is Ray Bay! Be sure to catch this place at feeding time! It is the CUTEST thing EVER!! I never thought I would put stingrays and cute together in one sentence before but when I saw these little guys getting fed by the diver I way over come by how adorable they were. They were like little puppies begging for treats. It was great. The feeding works like all the other presentations where the diver can talk to the audience via a special mic inside her scuba suit and a staff member is also inside to answer any question you might have about the stingrays. We learned all about how she knows which one have eaten, which ones are shy and which ones are a little feisty!

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After you've viewed the stingrays play, dive, swim and swerve from below, you can walk up above and give them a pet! Yes, that's right! Marine biologists are on call up top to answer more questions and help you at the touch tanks interact with these creatures. You will be able to feel their amazingly smooth skin in the Shoreline Gallery. There are also some tame White Spotted Bamboo Sharks that you can give a pet to as well. Don't worry, they don't bite. Everyone of the marine biologists is incredibly sweet and friendly! I was so surprised at how knowledgable every single one of the staff is. They were always able to answer every single one of my questions no matter how random or weird!

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I loved petting the stingrays. I wish I could get into the tank myself. They all seemed so affectionate! It must but such a great job to work there every day!

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As you make your way out, you get to walk through the Life Support Systems and get a behind the scenes look at the Aquarium's filtration equipment and pump systems along with real time stats and info on the water quality, conditions and temperatures. A unique perspective on the realities of what it takes to run an Aquarium.

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After this you're pretty much finished your tour. On your way out the door you get one last view from above the Dangerous Lagoon and it's really neat to see the sharks this way. Coming in the evening you'll have a better chance of actually getting to look over this area, as in the day time it's a mass with children and their school groups eating their lunches. Once you've finished taking it all in you're forced to walk out through the gift shop to make your way to the exit. Yes, this is annoying but I feel like it's common place in newly constructed museums so as long as your not a sucker, it's not really that much of a big deal.

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All in all, I have to say I loved my experience at the Toronto Aquarium. Yes, there are some things I didn't find to be perfect and sure there are some things I would change but it was a great day out and more than I expected it to be. It was unique and beautiful. Immersive and expansive. Unlike the zoo, this is somewhere you can visit year round and having it stay open as late as it does throughout the week it makes it a great place to visit after work to wind down after a stressful day. What I wanted from this place (especially with my yearly pass) was somewhere I could visit a few times a month, and wander through to get a blast of creativity, relax with some beautiful imagery and get taken away with some dreamlike exhibits and in the end, this is exactly what the Aquarium gave me. Over the years I'm sure they will be able to perfect the little things and even introduce new and exciting exhibit to keep people coming back. Stick to my top three tips and you'll be sure to have a fantastic time.

1. Go after 5pm on a weekday 2. Bring packed snacks 3. Use the sneaky repeat entry way to the underwater tunnel for a double dose of serene underwater adventures without awkward backtracking. (This is located to the right after you get off the moving walkway as you enter the Discovery Centre)  Enjoy your trip!

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