Touching creatures in the Maui Ocean Center tide pool // © 2013 Sea Life Park
Lions and tigers and turtles and sharks are standard fare at most any zoo or aquarium, but Hawaii’s wet-and-wild attractions go one step further by offering a heaping dose of island-style hospitality.
At once fun, educational and affordable, zoos and aquariums are a perfect fit for family vacations around the world, said Jennifer Fields of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.
“When visiting zoos and aquariums, families can learn more about the destination’s local flora and fauna and, ultimately, what they can do to help protect the species that reside here,” Fields said.
A wildlife experience on the islands often has a uniquely Hawaiian flavor as well. At the 42-acre Honolulu Zoo, for instance, birds and beasts frolic in distinctive settings such as the Tropical Forest and Pacific Islands habitats. The zoo’s logo features a native koa leaf pattern and tapa (traditional bark cloth) print, and its gardens are rich in native plants, such as the Hawaiian gardenia and white fragrant hibiscus.
Along with zookeeper talks and lively demonstrations, the Honolulu Zoo lures families with unique experiences such as stargazing programs, twilight tours and the overnight Snooze in the Zoo. Underlying the zoo’s sheer love of animals is its emphasis on environmental awareness, so that guests feel responsible for the well-being of their vacation destination, according to Jason Ito, Honolulu Zoo Society board president.
“Zoo-wide, the theme we are working on is ‘We Are All Islanders,’” said Ito.
At the Waikiki Aquarium, meanwhile, clans can come face to face with reef sharks, living corals, giant clams, endangered Hawaiian monk seals, jellyfish and a plethora of colorful native fish, several of which can only be seen there.
“We offer a great opportunity for visiting families to learn about what they might see out in the wild on their vacation,” said Waikiki Aquarium director Andy Rossiter. “Many of our marine life activities also share what families can do to protect our ocean resources.”
The Waikiki Aquarium’s annual summer concert series, Ke Kani O Ke Kai, is a fabulous family option for mingling with Oahu residents. On certain nights from June to August, popular island artists perform live on the seaside lawn while guests savor food from area eateries and wander through the aquarium galleries.
The splashy fun continues at Oahu’s Sea Life Park, where a new exhibit wows all ages with a dozen native Hawaiian sharks in a 300,000-gallon aquarium. Guests from ages 8 to 80 can get hands-on during the park’s daily encounter programs with dolphins, sea lions and Hawaiian rays, and they can even mingle with sharks — separated by just wire mesh.
“Our goal is for our guests to leave with a better understanding and appreciation of the many fascinating animals that live in our oceans,” said Sea Life Park curator Jeff Pawloski.
Panaewa Rainforest Zoo and Garden, located near Hilo on Hawaii Island, stands apart as the only natural tropical rainforest zoo in the U.S. The free 12-acre attraction houses 80 animal species including the endangered nene — the Hawaii state bird — as well as captivating creatures such as two-toed sloths, turtles, kinkajous and a regal white Bengal tiger named Namaste.
Wee ones love Panaewa’s Saturday afternoon petting zoo, which puts convivial critters right at their fingertips. Children, parents and grandparents alike can picnic in the shade of more than 100 types of palms or stroll with peacocks around the grounds — considered a botanical garden — past orchids, bamboos and rhododendrons.
Then there’s the maritime marvel called Maui Ocean Center, entrancing the generations with more than 300 types of marine life alongside interactive presentations. Its Turtle-rrific Thursday and Hangin’ with Honu events provide an exclusive chance to witness Hawaii’s green sea turtles and find out about a successful turtle hatch-and-release program.
“Whether young or old, a diver or non-swimmer, there is something for everyone to see and learn about at Maui Ocean Center, including how to become a better steward of the environment,” said Maui Ocean Center general manager Kate Zolezzi. For families, it’s yet another excellent reason to spend time where the wild things are.