Tuesday morning was bright, beautiful and warm, and I was going to spend it volunteering at the Save The Bay Exploration Center & Aquarium. Driving down Memorial Boulevard in Newport, R.I., looking out over the blue ocean and white sand at Easton’s Beach, I knew it was going to be a good day away from my busy work life. I knew this, because I had no idea what to expect—and I’ve learned the best things happen when you don’t expect them.
The location of the aquarium on Easton’s Beach is unreal. In between beautiful cliffs and positioned on the beach facing the ocean, I had no idea what this circular building was holding on the inside.
Octopuses? Sharks? Nemo?
No, this aquarium doesn’t contain tropical, bright fish (except a few that are swept up with the Gulf stream and cannot survive Rhode Island’s cold winters) or dolphins or penguins that are kept in tanks their whole lives. Instead, the Save The Bay Exploration Center and Aquarium exclusively features species native to Narragansett Bay. The critters are given to the aquarium by fishermen and scientists and are released within a year if they are healthy.
Having grown up in Rhode Island and being a huge ocean person, I was surprised to see so many species I'd never seen before and didn't even know existed right here in my own backyard. Did you know, for example, that those little golden pouches you often see washed up on the beach are mermaid purses—the egg sacks of baby little skates that will grow to the size of a steering wheel?
When I walked into the aquarium, I felt very welcomed by the volunteers and the manager, Adam Kovarsky. I looked around the front area and saw beautiful artwork and was eager to go tank to tank.
I was not expecting to ask as many questions as I did. A huge difference between the Save The Bay's cozy Exploration Center and Aquarium and other aquariums I have visited is the level of individual attention from the staff. I learned more here than at any other aquarium I’ve visited.
The animals ranged from tortoises and crabs to all sizes of fish, sharks and eels. And the best part? You can touch many of the creatures.
Visitors can pet critters in three touch tanks, each stationed with a volunteer docent to answer questions. The children around me were far braver than I was at picking up the spider crabs and touching the skates, although I did stay at the dogfish shark tank for about two hours petting the little guy who kept poking his head out of the water. I was intrigued by the two-foot, gray shark and wondered why he never went below the surface. I came to learn he was “spy hopping,” a reaction to all the vibrations in the room caused by our voices, our footsteps, and everything inbetween. The dogfish shark could even feel our heartbeats when our hands were in the water. Strong sensory receptors along the shark's sides sense these vibrations and stir an innate curiosity to visualize its surroundings above the water.
I had the best time, and I felt like one of the little children running around going tank to tank and asking a million questions about every creature. I also realized I wasn’t the only one feeling that way. Many adults came in without kids to check out the creatures we all swim with in Narragansett Bay.