Giant Fish Bowls
Talk about living in a fish bowl! Here I am in the Denver Aquarium—and by “in,” I mean in the water—scuba diving alongside pink and blue Mexican hogfish and silvery blue tang fish. As if that weren’t exciting enough, I also go nose-to-nose with a 350-pound (158kg) Queensland grouper, notice through my dive mask the aquarium’s 65 year-old, 200-pound (90kg) green sea turtle passing by, and catch sight of a nurse shark lurking in the distance. The most uncanny sight of all, though, is the group of people on the far side of the glass watching me. Even alongside all these big fish in a little pond, I’m the rock star.
Scuba diving in aquariums—as visitors can do in the Denver Aquarium’s “Under the Sea” exhibition—is very different than diving in open water. You don’t have to contend with big waves rocking the boat while you’re motoring out to a dive site, or a strong current pushing you along as you view underwater coral. Here, there’s no real current, and you know you’re going to see some 30 species of fish flowing around you—not to mention all those kids on the far side of the aquarium glass tugging on their parent’s arm and pointing to you with amazement etched on their faces.
The Denver aquarium has several underwater programs for visitors. On weekends you can either go scuba diving or snorkeling through a program run by A-1 Scuba, a local dive shop, in conjunction with Landry’s Restaurants, which owns the aquarium. “Dive with the Fish” puts you right in the middle of the “Under the Sea” exhibit. “Dive with the Sharks” takes place in the “Sunken Reef” exhibit, where you’ll be in the company of sand tiger sharks, zebra sharks, sawfish, and barracuda. You must be certified and present your SCUBA certification and a photo ID, but the aquarium provides all equipment, from regulators to wetsuits. If you don’t scuba dive, you can just “Swim with the Fish,” a snorkeling adventure for visitors ages 6 and older.
The city of Denver is the gateway to Colorado’s Rocky Mountains, so you can combine urban and outdoor activities once you leave the aquarium. Top attractions for first-time visitors include the U.S. Mint, the Museum of Nature and Science, and the Denver Art Museum. On weekends, people crowd into Lower Downtown (which locals call “Lodo”), with its variety of nightlife, restaurants, plays, musicals, and symphonies at the multi-venue Plex.
In the summer, locals galore are out walking or riding on the more than 850 miles (1,369km) of urban trails threading the Denver metropolitan area, or heading up to the high country to hike. In the winter, several major ski resorts are within a two-hour drive. Year-round, it’s an easy day trip to visit Rocky Mountain National Park or the U.S. Air Force Academy and Colorado Springs.
A couple of other aquariums in the U.S. afford the chance to swim with the fish. At the Adventure Aquarium in Camden, New Jersey, you can swim with sharks and stingrays. And the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s “Underwater Explorers” programs allow kids to swim in the Great Tidal Pool.
Downtown Aquarium ( 303/561-4444; www.aquariumrestaurants.com). Visit Denver ( 303/892-1112; www.denver.org). Adventure Aquarium, Camden, NJ ( 856/365-3300; www.adventureaquarium.com). Monterey Bay Aquarium, Monterey, CA (831/648-4800; www.montereybayaquarium.com).
When to Go: Year-round in Denver.
Denver International Airport.
$$$ Hotel Teatro, 1100 14th St. ( 888/727-1200 or 303/228-1100; www.hotelteatro.com). $$ Castle Marne Bed & Breakfast, 1572 Race St. ( 303/331-0621; www.castlemarne.com).