By Rachel Spensieri
I confess: I wasn’t sure what to expect when I first heard about the new aquarium opening in Schenectady. I had been to aquariums in major cities like New Orleans and Baltimore, so as I pulled into the parking lot of the former Rotterdam Square Mall, now called Viaport Rotterdam, with my team of judges (two first-graders—my 7-year-old son and his 6-year-old cousin), I wondered what was ahead.
The 25,000-square-foot Via Aquarium opened in November 2016 in a building formerly occupied by anchor stores like Macy’s and Sears. Via Properties, a company based in Turkey, purchased the space in 2015 for $9.25 million and began strategizing ways to revitalize the mall.
First to open earlier last year under Via Properties’ ownership was Via Entertainment, a 30,000-square-foot space that features an arcade, bowling lanes, a restaurant/bar, and a room for comedy shows and live music. Construction of the aquarium took longer than expected, so the targeted February 2016 opening was ultimately moved to November.
Upon entering the aquarium, children are given a Junior Explorer Passport and invited to collect stamps at eight stations throughout the 37 exhibits in order to earn a prize at the end. My first-graders eagerly searched for those stamping stations.
The aquarium boasts 250 species–about 2,500 total fish and other aquatic creatures that inhabit the facility’s 75,000 gallons of water. The first 10 tanks, the “River Journey,” are home to a variety of freshwater fish. Some mimic habitats found in the Adirondacks and feature eastern brook trout, smallmouth bass, and lake sturgeon. Others have more exotic inhabitants like the colorful Mozambique cichlids and even Amazon red-bellied piranhas.
The “Jewels of the Sea” saltwater tanks contain an enormous variety of ocean creatures: the lined seahorse, spotted scorpionfish, moray eel, octopus, and bright orange clownfish–both children squealed with delight at seeing “Nemo” in real life! My personal favorite among the ocean exhibits was the tank chock-full of moon jellyfish. I was entranced by these graceful creatures’ slow-motion waves of movement, illuminated with a black light to create an ethereal glow.
The aquarium has many interactive displays, much to the delight of my co-judges. “Kick the Trash” projects a video game onto the floor and invites visitors to–you guessed it–kick the trash out of the water to save the native aquatic life of a river. (I think my son would have kicked trash all day given the opportunity!) It is a fun way to drive home the real-world problem of pollution winding up in our waterways. An augmented reality sandbox lets visitors shape the topography of the land and explore how it impacts watersheds, and a “helmet tank” allows visitors to stick their head up into the center of a tank to get an up-close view of a variety of species of marine life.
But perhaps the ultimate in interactive exhibits is the aquarium’s expansive atrium featuring several large touch-tanks. For those who enjoy sending fish into a feeding frenzy, a pond full of hungry koi fish wraps around “Koi Island,” which includes a stage that can be rented for parties or events. A shallow touch pool in “Discovery Cove” allows visitors to get up close and personal with horseshoe crabs, sea urchins, hermit crabs, whelk sea snails, and sea stars.
“Stingray Bay,” the largest touch pool within this area, is home to an impressive number of stingray species including southern, Atlantic, and bluntnose. While all of the rays have had their venomous barbs removed, it took several minutes for my son to get up the nerve to roll-up his sleeves, but once he did, he was rewarded with several “swim-bys” from a gregarious cownose ray.
The next stop on our aquarium visit was “Adventure Reef,” which showcases an assortment of corals and fish found in reef habitats. There were many beautiful, colorful sea creatures to behold, but the ones that caught the attention of my aquarium companions were the blue tangs, made famous by “Finding Dory.” There was also an interesting display on the impact of global warming on the already warm waters that support coral reefs and how the resulting “bleaching” is destroying these important marine habitats.
But like any good tour, the Via Aquarium does indeed save the best for last. The pièce de résistance of this facility is “Shark Alley,” which boasts two walk-through tunnels giving you an up-close panorama of several species of small sharks, including white tip and black tip reef sharks, as well as pufferfish, yellow tangs, and clown triggerfish. Both children were in awe of the sharks, and gleefully pointed out each one they spotted.
About 90 minutes after beginning, our tour culminated in the gift shop, where you can procure just about anything your heart could desire with a fish on it. My assistant judges were giddy with excitement about all they’d seen, and I was pleasantly surprised with the high quality of the exhibits throughout the facility. The entire aquarium complex has been thoughtfully planned out and well-executed. It is a fun and educational option close-to-home for families in the Capital Region. And I have a 7-year-old who is already planning his next visit!
Visiting Via Aquarium
93 W. Campbell Road, Schenectady, NY 280.5100;
Hours: First admittance to the Aquarium is at 10am Monday through Saturday, and at 11am on Sunday; I suggest getting there early as it can get very crowded on the weekends making it difficult for children to get close to the tanks. The last admittance is 7:30pm Monday through Saturday, and 4:30pm on Sunday. Via Aquarium is open every day except Thanksgiving and Christmas day.
Tickets: Tickets are available online or at the aquarium entrance. All exhibit galleries are fully accessible to wheelchairs and strollers. Adult, Friday-Sunday: $19; Monday-Thursday: $16 Children age 4-17: $10 Children under 4: Free College students, first responders and military: $14 Seniors 62+, Friday-Sunday: $17; Monday-Thursday: $14 Season passes are also available.