Story by Judy Edwards | Photography Courtesy of Maui Ocean Center
The huge, strong, silvery ulua (jack fish) that patrol the Open Ocean exhibit at the Maui Ocean Center in Mā‘alaea seem like the marine version of bulldogs, and in the actual open ocean, there is very little they fear. Compared to these big, beefy fish, the slender young tiger shark, darkly spotted and striped, looks like a lithe ballerina. I lean up against the heavy glass, eye to eye with one of the bolder, more inquisitive jacks, and grin. This is something you can’t do in the open ocean—it’s too vast and too wild and the fish are too busy to bother with you. But here, at Maui’s only public aquarium, you can place your forehead on the cool glass in the soothing dim blue light and go face to face with one of the kings of the sea.
Since its opening in 1998, the Maui Ocean Center has become a popular attraction for visitors and residents alike, with its outdoor tide pools (sometimes occupied by a cheerful person in a wetsuit, half-immersed and taking questions), and a chain of rooms with displays upon displays of vibrant Hawaiian fishes, multihued corals, and one demure and lovely octopus. This is the marine life you’d see if you put on your mask and took to the waters offshore here. There is nothing from exotic locales elsewhere, nor does there need to be. The richness and complexity of the exhibits is more than most people can absorb in one visit (or twenty).
And then there is that awe-inspiring 750,000-gallon Open Ocean exhibit, whose clear, walk-through acrylic tunnel is about the closest wraparound immersion in an aquatic environment you can have without getting wet. Human traffic jams often form when the huge manta rays (related to sharks) decide to rest by draping themselves on the tunnel immediately overhead. FYI: Underwater weddings in the tank are an option. Yes, seriously.