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Wildlife wonderful at Springfield aquarium

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July 16, 2019 By Jocelyn Murphy

The simplest place to start is by stating that Johnny Morris' Wonders of Wildlife National Museum & Aquarium is impressive at every turn. The 350,000-square-foot complex in Springfield, Mo., a monumental celebration of nature, was voted "America's No. 1 Best New Attraction" and "America's Best Aquarium" by USA Today in its first year -- and a recent visit made it abundantly clear why.

On that first visit, my friend and I spent roughly five hours at Wonders of Wildlife, but one more inclined to the hunter or angler way of life could easily stay longer. Education and conservation are front and center, especially in the Wildlife Galleries. Visitors are transported through time from the earliest Native American hunters and gatherers to modern-day wildlife management, as well as around the world with stunning dioramas that immerse guests in lifelike environments from across the globe. Walking within inches of these animals -- some re-creations and some record-setting big game specimens -- reinforces the awe-inspiring majesty of nature. The galleries are dramatic and extraordinary, and one could easily spend an hour in each diorama inspecting each minute detail. And there were whole pieces of the complex we breezed through because my knowledge about all things fishing is severely lacking.

We, however, were there to find out about the Out to Sea Shark Dive experience. In June, WoW unveiled its exciting, and most immersive, chance to actually enter one of the exhibitions and come face-to-face with the marine life -- including sharks. On the day of my visit, check-in was made easy and clear by staff when I arrived to pick up my ticket: meet in the lobby 15 minutes before my allotted time and someone would walk me through the steps from the welcome kiosk to the water. Once finished with a brief survey and waiver to ensure safety, the friendly team member escorted me to the preparation area where my friend and I were outfitted with wetsuits and prepared in the changing rooms, isolated from the foot traffic of the rest of the visitors.

A brief instructional video walks you through what you need to know and how to stay safe, while also explaining the special SeaTREK air helmets that allow this experience to take place -- wherein guests are fully submerged without needing to have diver certification. While you're sitting watching the video, you're within view of the public meandering through the exhibits, so this is the point when other guests will begin to get curious and will likely gather to watch your descent. Hope you aren't shy!

Then there's nothing left to do but wade into the water. The attentive staff members are with you every step as they guide you down the ladder and place the air helmet over your head. The water is cool only at first contact and will rise to just below your chin as you descend into the underwater cage already in the exhibit. The safety diver in the cage with us helped us lower to our knees (you don't really want to stay standing with that helmet on for 20 minutes, even under water) and there we were -- literally face-to-face with reef fish, several-hundred-pound Atlantic goliath grouper, barracuda, a brown shark and three sand tiger sharks.

A few of the smaller reef fish were curious about the new additions to their home and swam right up to the bars to get a good look at us. Most of the exhibition's inhabitants were indifferent to our arrival, though. They swam languidly, or now and then moved from one side of the exhibit to the other with perceived purpose. When looking at the exhibition through the glass from the normal visitor's perspective, the cage is against the far back wall, so the marine life stretched out between us and the guests on the other side of the glass. A space between the cage and the wall, though, allowed the fish to swim around us on all sides and brought them very close to the bars -- including the sharks. With four sharks in the exhibit with us (and many other fish, but the sharks, admittedly, were the most alluring) we couldn't keep an eye on them all at once. The safety diver with us the whole time was quick to get our attention when one of the sharks floated especially close to the cage so we never missed them.

Inside the cage, each diver is given a GoPro camera to record (short) video and take pictures. Having never used a GoPro -- and finding the screen so small when it was in my hand -- the pictures were far better than my expectations. There is also a small booklet in front of each diver with identifying photos of the fish so you can always know what you're looking at, and a small doodle pad should you need to communicate with your companions. My friend and I mostly just spent the time watching in awe, though, forgetting even to take very many pictures. The realization that I was underwater, in an exhibition with SHARKS -- an encounter many people will never experience in their lifetime -- and the fact that I didn't have to travel to a coast to do it, was overwhelming, exhilarating and very moving for me. The whole experience lasts around an hour and a half, with around 20 minutes being spent in the water. And participants receive a flash drive at the end with their recordings.

While the dive was the major excitement of the day, I'd be remiss if I didn't emphasize the marvel that is the full aquarium adventure. From the moment you step through the front door to the lobby bathed in a deep blue light -- like you've stepped under water yourself -- the WoW aquarium fully adheres to the buzzword of the day: immersive. Highlights during our visit included watching playful otters, the bewitching jellyfish, the touch tank of stingrays and walking through a tunnel full of river "monsters." Just as on the gallery side, the exhibitions and habitats in the aquarium take you through the swamp lands of America, the Amazon rain forest, the depths of the ocean and more, with the same astonishing attention to detail.


FAQ

Johnny Morris’ Wonders of Wildlife National Museum & Aquarium

WHEN — Currently 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Friday & Sunday; 9 a.m.-8p.m. Saturday; see website for full schedule.

WHERE — 500 W Sunshine St., Springfield, Mo.

COST — Adults: $14.95-$39.95; kids 4-11: $9.95-23.95

INFO — 888-222-6060, wondersofwildlife.org, info@wondersofwildlife.org

BONUS — Though we didn’t participate, a sweet touch for families and little ones was the interactive “exhibit” where guests can design and color their own creatures with provided materials and then watch them come to life on a screen made to look like a real exhibit.


FYI

Out to Sea Shark Dive Experience

Open to children 10 and older.

Cost $130 ($90/members); Feeding Frenzy $155 ($115/members)

Tickets are currently on special promotion at $95/$55 for the dive and $120/$80 for the Feeding Frenzy through the end of January.


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