By Kara Kimbrough
As if the Mississippi Gulf Coast is not sufficiently amazing, a new attraction opened last August that is eliciting rave reviews from visitors of all ages.
Overlooking the gulf, the spectacular Mississippi Aquarium welcomes guests with a stunning 65-foot sails entry fountain fronting nearly six acres filled with an amazing collection of sea life, wildlife, birds, and much more.
If you visit at lunchtime, the aquarium’s Pelican Pointe Café offers delicious burgers topped with a tantalizing sauce, sandwiches, salads, pizzas, and beverages.
Opened on the 15th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, the magnificent complex contains over 80,000 square feet of indoor and outdoor exhibits connected by landscaped walkways. Over 200 species can be viewed in 12 habitats designed to allow visitors to safely view animals and sea creatures from a few feet away or, in some cases, what appears to be mere inches. A spectacular 30-foot, 360-degree tunnel creates an unbelievable view of marine life from above and below.
Designed with accessibility in mind, spacious walking paths located inside and outside expertly connect the habitats and create a way to effortlessly see everything in one visit.
Something to remember, especially if visiting with small children, is that many of the exhibits are located outside. Gulf Coast temperatures and humidity rates can be high during the summer. Bring plenty of sunscreen and protective clothing if touring during the hottest part of the day.
Trips to the zoo aside, I’d never seen certain species of wildlife so closely. In fact, while all species are securely contained, they were easier to view and photograph than some I’d viewed from afar at the zoo. I was mesmerized by smiling crocodiles and alligators lazily sunning below the outdoor walkway in the open air space. Nearby, playful river otters and dolphins splashed and played in open pools fronted with glass enclosures.
Inside, a massive display of sea turtles, hundreds of fish in all shapes, sizes, and colors, and ominous-looking sharks swimming eerily close to my face on the other side of the heavy glass partition held my attention for the longest period of time. Learning the aquarium serves as a rescue habitat from some sea life creatures was a pleasant surprise.
It was heart-warming to watch Banner, the rescued sea turtle, swim and dig in the sand after being given a new lease on life when a boat propeller accident impacted his buoyancy. Rendered unable to swim with his head up, aquarium staff took him in, provided medical care, and gave him a protected life in the massive sea life tank. If you visit, make sure to look for Banner, whose life as a heads-down swimmer doesn’t seem to bother him.
Unlike my brother, I’m not a bird watcher, but the open-air habitat housing species from around the world, many perched an arm’s length away in trees, was worth braving the sun to experience. Lastly, getting to touch the “friendly shark” and pet the African penguin were also highlights.
Touring the large aquarium does work up an appetite, so stopping by the outdoor Pelican Pointe Café for what marketing staff billed as the “best burger on the Coast” seemed like the perfect plan. The humidity was a little high on the day of my visit, so we brought our food inside and dined in the spacious, cool events room, an option for any guest.
I haven’t tasted every burger on the Coast, so I hesitate to say the shark bite burger is the best in the area. I can definitely attest that it is undeniably delicious. Two thick patties are topped with cheddar cheese, sliced tomatoes, and crispy lettuce along with a generous drizzle of the café’s signature sauce. I’m sure not of the ingredients, although it can be described as a rich cheese sauce with elements of tangy barbecue sauce.
Other offerings ($8-$10) are chicken and toasted cheese sandwich, blackened shrimp tacos, salads, pizzas ($10 or more), a variety of sides and beverages, and a kid’s menu offering hot dogs, burgers, and chicken tenders.
The Mississippi Aquarium is located at 2100 E. Beach Blvd., Gulfport. For more information, visit msaquarium.org online.