Animals: 7 Aquariums with Shark Viewing

Whale Shark, photo by Krenda
You are more likely to have lightning strike you or get killed by a tornado than get attacked or killed by a shark.  Yet over 100 million sharks get killed each year.  While the world has over five hundred shark species, only a dozen species are known to attack humans.  Sharks are powerful and graceful, using six senses including electroreception through special sensors.

Whale Shark Georgia Aquarium
A friend of mine at work recommended that I swim with whale shark off the shores of Mexico.  Intrigued, I researched the endangered shark to find out where I could view one in the United States.  Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta holds the record of the first and only place to keep whale sharks outside of Asia.

Whale sharks hold the record of being the largest known fish species.  The largest stretched 41.5 feet and weighed approximately 47,000 pounds.  Originating approximately sixty million years ago, whale sharks are filter feeders.  Only two other filter feeding sharks, megamouth shark and basking shark, exist.

The whale shark gentle nature and sheer size steals the show at the Georgia Aquarium.  As the largest aquarium in the world, you may easily spend a half day at the other exhibits, touch tanks, and the dolphin show.
You may travel to exotic seas, go diving, and have the opportunity to see a whale shark in the wild.  Whale sharks also live off the Bay Island Honduras, Thailand, the Philippines, the Maldives, Western Australia, Belize, and Puerto Rico.  However, for an easy way to see sharks with your family, consider the following aquariums:
Visitors and Whale Shark Georgia Aquarium

1.  Monterey Bay Aquarium, California, adults $49.95 and child (age 3-12) $29.95
second largest aquarium in the world, offers education including "Project White Shark" 15 min. talk about the threatened white shark, and "Kelp Forest Feeding" diver hand feeds sharks and other animals during 15 minute presentation

2.  Shedd Aquarium, Illinois, adults $39.95 and child (age 3-11) $29.95
90 minute behind the scene to see shark mealtime $89.95

3.  Florida Aquarium Tampa, Florida, adults $28.95 and child $23.95 discounted online pricing
Shark Swim experience allows age 9 and up to snorkel with sand tiger sharks for $110 each
Scuba dive with sharks requires certification and $160 fee

4.  Shark Reef Aquarium at Mandalay Bay, Las Vegas, Nevada, adult $25, child (4-12) $19
100 sharks including grey reef, blacktip, zebra, sand tiger, sandbar, nurse, and whitetip reef
$650 to dive with sharks

5.  Newport Aquarium, Newport, Kentucky, adults $24.99, child $17.99
Suspended rope bridge takes you inches above sharks, over 12 species including sand tiger, blacktip, California leopard shark, and Port Jackson shark
Private overnight on Mon. Tue. with min. 20 people and $49.99 per person

6.  Florida Keys Aquarium, Florida, adults $20, child (4-12) $15
Predator Reef Tank includes nurse, blacktip, sandbar, blacknose, and bonethead shark,
Big Shark Bay Encounter offers Pet and feed nurse shark $18

 I've also been to the Shedd and Newport Aquarium and recommend these aquariums too.


Architecture and 3 Chicago Boat Tours

A trip to a big city gives you an opportunity to showcase architecture.  You can talk about building types and materials and structural concepts.  Before your outing, draw together different structures such as a suspension bridge, arch, column, post and beam, and dome.  Then on your trip, see who finds the structure first.  You can really make the adventure fun by taking a boat ride and viewing the buildings from the river.

Thanks to our cousins for taking us on the Chicago water taxi.  Tickets cost only $10 for an all day pass and you can buy them onsite at 400 North Michigan and Trump Plaza.  If you want to outsource the architecture lessons to an expert, Chicago has several architecture tours:

1.  Chicago's First Lady Cruises - 90 min, $40 daytime, $43 night ride - Riverside Garden site, learn design of 50 buildings; now ranked by Trip Advisor on the list "10 Great US Tours"

2.  Wendella Chicago River Architecture - 75 min tour, $30 adult, $15 children under age 11 - dock near Trump Tower, learn about the architects;

3.  Shoreline Architecture Tours - 75 min. tour, adult $35 day, child $21 day, $29 adult night tour, $13 child night - see the Wrigley Building, Trump Tower, Marina City and more.  Depart at Navy Pier's Polk Bros Park;

If you prefer to combine sports and architecture, use your muscle and kayak the river with Kayak Chicago: $69/person 

After the trip, talk about the types of building people live in today.  Perhaps you live in a house, but you saw a lot of apartments in the big city.  Ask your kids about other structures from the past (igloo, teepee, log cabin, pyramid).

 We ended the trip walking to Millennium Park and admiring the Cloud Gate sculpture.  The reflective steel sculpture commonly called "The Bean" was the first public artwork in the US by the famous artist Anish Kapoor.


Geology Lesson: 3 Vacations, 3 Dunes

A new environment can make getting outside and exploring fun.  Dunes are a geological wonder enabled by wind.  Diverse in size, the hills and ridges add to the visual wonder.  Did you know Michigan is home to the largest dune system in the world?

Trip One:  At 450 feet above Lake Michigan, our kids enjoyed the challenge of climbing dunes at Sleeping Bear Dunes in Michigan. As a toddler, my daughter didn't go far.  ABC's Good Morning America named Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore as the "Most Beautiful Place in America".  The National Park Service protects these dunes.

Trip Two:  On a later vacation, we visited sand dunes protected by the state park system.  Jockey's Ridge State Park has the tallest sand dunes on the Atlantic Coast.  While located on the Outer Banks, Nags Head, North Carolina, the dunes are not located on the coastline beaches.  Geologists believe hurricanes blew sand inland.  At a height of 80 to 100 feet, my kids, niece, and nephew enjoyed doing cartwheels on the sand.  We enjoyed the beauty of the sunset over the water.

Trip Three:  On our most recent vacation, we sought out another state park with a sand dune.  Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park in Utah has fabulous red sand created by iron oxide and minerals.  It comes from Navajo sandstone from the geologic period called Middle Jurassic.  Although the dunes have an estimated age of 10,000 to 15,000 years old, the landscape quickly changes.  The hills can move as much as 50 feet in just one year.  This time my kids, niece, and nephew ran up and down the hills.  Those moving at a slower pace found the rare Coral Pink San

d Dunes tiger beetle, only found within the 500 acres of the Coral Pink Sand Dunes.  Conservationist worry about their extinction.

Here's 7 other sand dunes in the United States for your kids to explore:
1.  Juniper Dunes, Washington (WA) for hiking, wire keeps out the off road vehicles (ORV) and motorcycles http://www.wta.org/go-hiking/hikes/juniper-dunes-wilderness

2.  Syracuse Sand Dunes, Kansas for the family into adventure and able to use ORVs http://www.syracusesanddunes.com/

3.  Killpecker, WY, another play zone for ORVs http://www.blm.gov/wy/st/en/field_offices/Rock_Springs/rec/dunes.html

4.  Christmas Valley Sand Dunes, Utah (UT), the largest inland shifting system in the Pacific Northwest http://www.blm.gov/or/resources/recreation/site_info.php?siteid=85

5.  Oregon Dunes, Oregon, if your kids are old enough, the family can go horseback riding on the dunes  http://oregondunes.org/horse-riding.html

6.  Great Sand Dunes National Park, 35 miles north of Alamosa, Colorado (CO), kids can even sled on the dunes  http://www.nps.gov/grsa/planyourvisit/directions.htm

7.  Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, Indiana (IN)  http://www.nps.gov/indu/forkids/index.htm

We've also been to the Indiana Dunes.  It's also fun for kids, but don't expect perfect scenery...a few smokestakes could be in your horizon.


Sports Edutainment: 7 Bungee Trampoline Places

If your kids like trampoline parks and want to go even higher, consider a bungee trampoline.  Take jumping to a whole new level using bungee cord tethers attached to a jump harness.  Not only do you gain height, it also allows you to try flip after flip.  Do this activity at your own risk.  Operators act as safety spotters, but they will require you signing a release waiver before jumping.  We splurged for bungee trampoline ($15 per 5 minutes) at the Northstar California resort in Truckee (near Lake Tahoe).  We stayed at this beautiful resort for my friend's wedding.  While the resort is known for skiing (Outside Magazine 2014 Best Ski Mountain for Families, Travel Channel Top 5 Spots to Snowboard in the World), we visited during the summer and still found plenty of activities.  The Northstar's Kid Zone also offers spider climb, miniature golf, roller skating, and gem painting. 

Here's seven other places within the United States offering bungee trampoline experience: 

1.  Jackson Hole, WY: Cody Lake Teton Village, WY.  We stayed at a condo in Jackson Hole, but must have been so busy with national park activities that we missed the kid activity area.  1 activity ticket $14, must weigh between 40-60 lbs., fly up to 24 feet in the air.  Drop tower ($14), tramp sightseeing, and ropes course ($37).
2.  Big Sky Mountain, MT: 50 Big Sky Resort Rd, Big Sky, MT, near Yellowstone Park, 3 minute jump for those weighing 40 lb. to 180 lb., also offers skeet shooting for adults, whitewater rafting, and fly fishing
3.  Mt. Hood Skibowl, OR: Adventure Park, 87000 US 26 Government Camp, OR.  recorded a jump of 15 feet; also offers alpine slide, batting cages, zip line, and disc golf.
4.  Beaver Creek resort Vail, Colorado:  I've also stayed at this resort, but during ski season.  The bungee jumping opens June and ends in September.  One session $14.  Adventure Center also offers gem panning, ropes course, and climbing wall.
5.  Okemo Mountain Resort, VT: 77 Okemo Ridge Rd, Ludlow, VT, single jump $10, four jumping stations, heights of 20 feet plus, also offers mountain coaster, Segway tour, AMP energy big air bag
6.  Treehouse World, PA: 1442 Phoenixville Pike, West Chester, PA; no age min. as long as meeting min. 20 pounds, also offer archery tag, rock climbing on trees, and wooded nature trails
7.  Fun Stop Family Action Park, TN: Pigeon Forge TN, $7 ticket, also offers BOGO go kart tickets 9AM to noon and big top arcade; if you are looking for nearby lodging consider our luxury rental cabin in Pigeon Forge named Indigo Moon Lodge


Animal Science: 7 Places to Show Kids Bison

Bison at Yellowstone National Park

Loved how the bison "owned" the Yellowstone National Park, roaming freely where they wanted. If they felt like crossing the road, believe me, you waited. Their size and power and prehistoric look makes you sit back, wait, and enjoy watching.

The kids enjoyed seeing the bison so much, we sought out a closer location with bison.  USA Today listed The Land Between the Lakes as one of the "51 Greatest Places to See Wildlife" describing the area, "Located in the national recreation area known as Land Between the Lakes (between Lake Barkley and Kentucky Lake), Kentucky's only drive-through elk and bison prairie gives visitors up-close views of these majestic animals."  

The Elk & Bison Prairie National Recreation Area (Golden Pond, KY) in Land Between the Lakes offers family an economical deal - only $5 per car.  http://www.lbl.org/EBPrairieGate.html. Only enclosed vehicles allowed.  The loop only covers 3.5 miles, but leave plenty of time to allow bison to cross the road in front of you.
In the past, 40 to 60 million bison roamed across North America (NA).  According to the Wildlife Conservation Society, there are now only 500,000 in NA and most live on ranches.  Conservation herds total an estimated 20,000.  If you'd like to help, check out The American Bison Society http://www.wcs.org/saving-wildlife/hoofed-mammals/bison/the-american-bison-society.aspx

As the kids continued to age, I'd find more places to sight bison.  Look up bison farms where residents raise bison and offer products for sale.  I found one in Wisconsin - Lester's Bison Farm (31807 60th St, Salem, WI).  No entrance fee.

We did purchase meat after learning more about the farm business from the owner himself.  If you do not feel motivated to travel for bison meat, go to meet Lester.  His patriotism shines at the driveway entrance with a row of American flags.  Retired from the United States Marine Corp, he has a lot of stories to tell.
If you'd like to show your kids the bison, here's 7 other locations with bison;
1.  Sandsage Bison Range, Garden City, KS, http://www.kdwpt.state.ks.us/news/KDWPT-Info/Locations/Wildlife-Areas/Region-3/Sandsage-Bison-Range
2.  Blue Mounds State Park, Luverne, MN, http://www.dnr.state.mn.us/state_parks/blue_mounds/index.html
3.  Antelope Island State Park, Layton, Utah (UT), near Salt Lake City, $9 per car http://www.utah.com/stateparks/antelope_island.htm
4.  Fort Robinson State Park, Crawford, Nebraska http://www.stateparks.com/fort_robinson.html
5.  Maxwell State Bison Refuge, Canton, KS http://www.kdwpt.state.ks.us/news/KDWPT-Info/Locations/Wildlife-Areas/Region-4/Maxwell
6.  House Rock Wildlife Area near Jacob Lake, Arizona, http://www.wildlifeviewingareas.com/wv-app/parkdetail.aspx?parkid=57
7.  Witchita Mountains Wildlife Refuge, OK, bison and elk reintroduced  http://www.fws.gov/refuge/Wichita_Mountains/wildlife_and_habitat/index.html#


Science: 9 Places in Florida Where Your Kids Might Spot a Manatee

Not only kids have curiosity about animals.  Travel & Leisure magazine article 12 Places to Swim with Animals states "your travel bucket list just got 12 items longer."  The article included swimming with manatees in Florida as one of the twelve places.  I admit it was on my list.

All three species of manatees (West Indian, West African, Amazonians) have endangered animal status.  The Florida Manatee and Anitillean Manatees are subspecies of the West Indian species.  If you are a globe trotter, perhaps you visit the Anitillean Manatee in Puerto Rico or Mexico or the African Manatee in Kissama National Park in Angola, Africa.  Boat traffic and cold stress from temperatures below 68 degrees present risk factors for manatees.  If you go on a tour, the guide will reinforce instructions on how to observe without disturbing and rules such as not touching the manatees. 

One of the few places to swim or snorkel with the Florida manatees is the Crystal River, north of Tampa.  A tour makes it easy, providing you wet suits and a short boat ride (under 30 minutes).  Make certain to arrive early to watch the mandatory regulations video.  Related to the elephants, these gentle giants or "sea cows" typically grow to 10 feet in length and can weigh over 3,000 lbs.  Manatees can live 50 to 60 years. 

We saw manatees both active and swimming around us and manatees sleeping at lower levels.  Even during napping, manatees surface for air every twenty minutes.  Manatees eat large quantities of vegetation each day including sea grass, aquatic plants, algae, and mangrove leaves.  These friendly creatures swim gracefully.  It's a magical treat to swim near them. 

The best time to spot manatees is during the winter and early spring when manatees gather near warmer water such as near springs or electric company channels.

If you take a Crystal River tour, swimming skills help.  You'll likely be in cool water for an hour and a half.  There's many places to observe manatees including these 9 places:

1.  Citrus County's Homosassa River, paddle toward Ellie Schuller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park

2.  Weeki Wachee River, warm Weeki Wachee Springs; check out Paddling Adventures located next to Weeiki Wachee Springs Park for a 5 mile, 3 hour paddle

3.  Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge observation area near Cape Canaveral, plus look nearby at Bairs Cove Boat Ramp

4.  Manatee Springs State Park Chiefland, Suwanee River, 100 million gallons of clear water comes from the springs

5.  Blue Spring State Park, north of Orlando, although access prohibited in winter

6.  Edward Ball Wakulla Spring Park, Wakulla Springs, the deepest freshwater spring in FL

7.  Lee County Park, Fort Meyers, discharge canal from electric company, check out Calusa Blueway Outfitters

8.  Manatee Lagoon, West Palm Beach, near electric company

9.  TECO Manatee Viewing Center, Apollo Beach near discharge canal

Experts estimate the total Florida manatee population at approximately 4,000, so you are not guaranteed to spot a manatee.  If you don't want to disappoint your kids, consider the Lowry Park Zoo or Miami Seaquarium. 


Sports/Swimming: Three Family Friendly Mermaid Sites

Mermaid swimming, a cross between free diving and synchronized swimming, has become trendy.  Perhaps your child doesn't have aspirations to become one of the professional thousand mermaid and merman, but observing a show does inspire strengthening swimming skills.  Mermaids can descend on a single breath.  While wearing a tail that can weigh up to 35 pound, they make choreographed moves to music.  It's no easy task.  It can take nine months of training, using hula hoop diving exercises and more.  Mermaids must get scuba and CPR certified and prove timed 200 yard swim and 50 yard butterfly.

However, many of the recent shows or classes have adult locations or minimum age requirements: 
1) Silverton Casino in Las Vegas, Nevada with 4,000 fish
2) Sip'n Dip Lounge, Great Falls, Montana which added mermaids to their live piano bar entertainment
3) Dive Bar Sacramento, CA, featuring merman 4) Hotel del Coronado, CA, $25 class for adults includes 45 minutes of core and cardio fitness while wearing a tail. 
5) Whitney M Young Magnet Schools, Laflin St., Chicago, by Aquamermaid Chicago, $60

Here's my suggestion - go to the original, the Weiki Wachee show debuted synchronized mermaid ballet in October 1947 as a road side attraction.  In 2008, Weeki Wachee Springs became a state park and park entrance includes the show.  The park offers limited seating in an auditorium below the surface of the water;  go early!  Long hoses placed throughout the ground provide air to mermaids and mermaids perform to multiple songs.  We laughed as a turtle tried to get into the act.

Here's 3 other family friendly mermaid shows:
1) Downtown Aquarium, Denver Colorado, Mystic Mermaid Show, includes conservation messages, adults $20, children $14
2) Ripley's Aquarium Myrtle Beach, SC, mermaids swim along with sting rays and sharks on weekends, $23 adult, $17 child aquarium tickets; limited seating, go early!
2) Wreck Bar, Fort Lauderdale, FL, shipwreck scene and 30 min. show, featured in Analyze This movie, only two shows per week, go early!