Down Under in Baltimore

You don't need a plane ticket to see the critters of Australia anymore. Just drop by the National Aquarium.
Cassandra M. Vanhooser

My favorite creatures at the National Aquarium in Baltimore don't swim, crawl, or slither. They fly, and you might very well miss them if you don't turn your eyes toward the rafters.

They're gray-headed flying foxes, or more accurately, giant fruit bats. Just as their name suggests, they look a bit like foxes, with pointy puppy dog noses, narrow eyes, and red fur. But that's where the similarities end. These foxes have huge black wings that can stretch up to 4 feet, and they hang upside down most of the day. They're the largest bats in Australia.

It's Weird Down Under
These flying foxes came to the city as part of the aquarium's newest permanent exhibit, Animal Planet Australia: Wild Extremes. They live inside a soaring 64,000-square-foot glass house where curators have re-created a wild river gorge, much like one you might find in remote northern Australia.

Waterfalls tumble down great expanses of red rock. Banana palms and eucalyptus grow from the crevices. Lizards hide in grottoes and holes, uninhibited by cages. Parrots, lorikeets, and finches flitter about.

The more dangerous animals―poisonous adders and fresh water crocs―are confined by glass. Still, the barriers that would normally keep visitors from getting too close have been omitted. Many of the exhibits are positioned at kid's-eye level. You see the shorter set pulling mom and dad down to view something thrilling, such as a pig-nosed turtle or a giant barramundi chasing a smaller fish.

Wild About Australia
"This exhibit has taken the aquarium into the future," says curator John Seyjagat. "You have birds flying on top. You have crocodiles, turtles, and fish living in the water. We have taken all the elements of nature and packaged them together under one roof.

"We were trying to bring something totally new to the public," John explains. "Australia is a very water-challenged country. At some points, you have too much. At others, you have too little. It's a place of either flood or drought."

For a seaport such as Baltimore with its abundance of water, that's a startling contrast―and a great teaching tool.

National Aquarium in Baltimore: www.aqua.org or [410] 576-3800.

"Down Under in Baltimore" is from the November 2007 issue of Southern Living. Because prices, dates, and other specifics are subject to change, please check all information to make sure it's still current before making your travel plans.