Shedd Aquarium Wants You to Look Nature in the Eye This Summer with New Outdoor Aquatic Experiences

Land-based mobile aquarium visits, on-water boat excursions and in-river kayak programs are giving Chicagoans new ways to come face-to-fish with biology and nature

Shedd Aquarium is taking learning and exploration outside of the aquarium walls this summer with new, outdoor aquatic experiences designed to spark curiosity for local waters and wildlife by bringing people closer to them. From a traveling aquarium exhibiting animals in some of Chicago’s neighborhood streets and parks, to a new floating island conservation program for Chicago River kayakers, to hands-on science experiences in a boat on Lake Michigan, the initiatives are driven by Shedd’s commitment to increase accessibility to nature within the city.

“Looking nature in the eye has never been more necessary or powerful,” said Shedd President and CEO Bridget Coughlin, PhD. “There is a widening disconnect between people and nature, and we are determined to close that gap. Whether it is a child feeling the water of Lake Michigan for the very first time aboard one of our excursions, or a senior citizen experiencing their first face to face with a longnose gar, we have an opportunity to build connections, understanding and ultimately, aquatic nature ethos.  Nature is part of people’s everyday lives and livelihoods. There is no greater discovery than looking nature in the eye and to realize it is looking right back at you.”

Shedd’s Traveling Aquarium (July)

Despite sharing a coast with Lake Michigan, Chicago’s urban environment creates increasing barriers to connecting people, including children, with nature. Through a mobile aquarium on wheels, known as Shedd’s Traveling Aquarium, the organization is hoping to bridge that divide by bringing native aquatic life to neighborhoods across the city. The mobile aquarium, provided by the Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission, will feature examples of species you could find in Lake Michigan to exemplify the diversity and beauty of the Great Lakes ecosystem. Some of the outings for the mobile aquarium will be announced publicly, while others will be a surprise, meant to delight Chicagoans. 

Accompanying the traveling aquarium will be Shedd staff and plenty of activities to engage people of all ages. From examining fish scales and fossils to identifying plants and animals by sight and learning about their natural history, the aquarium will encourage a curiosity and exploration of Great Lakes species.

Another mission of the traveling aquarium is to share the dangers that plastic pollution poses to the Great Lakes. Activities on microplastics and recycling will encourage stewardship, and people engaging with the traveling aquarium can even take a pledge on-site to join the Shedd the Straw campaign – an effort to decrease the use of single-use plastics straws and other plastics in place of more sustainable options. The aquarium will share additional details, including some dates and locations for the traveling aquarium as they approach.

Shedd’s Boat Excursions (July)

Two different, 90-minute boating experiences, both guided and hosted by Shedd Aquarium, will immerse guests in the world of freshwater science and exploration. Whether on the Chicago River or Lake Michigan excursion, riders will step on board and become citizen scientists, getting a first-hand look at how a research vessel operates. From there, guests can roll up their sleeves and participate in various water experiments and analysis to learn more about the water that surrounds and runs through the city.

Using various research tools, boaters can measure the depth, clarity and temperature of water in various locations along the ride. Samples from the water can also be zoomed-in on to explore the water at a microscopic level, revealing drifters, plankton and in some cases, unwanted guests like microplastics. Another program will see boaters employing underwater robots (ROVs) to monitor and explore areas of the lake at depths that are difficult to reach.  

One of the boats, The Double Jameson, will do both river and lake excursions, and will be booked exclusively for community groups across the city. The second boat, the W.G. Jackson, provided by the Robert B. Annis Water Resources Institute of Grand Valley State University, will explore the lake and be available for more individual and small group experiences. Those excursions will happen July 23-27. Additional information about Shedd’s Boat Excursions and registration instructions:

Kayak for Conservation and Shedd’s River Island (July – October)

To drive stewardship and conservation for the Chicago River, Shedd is building a new habitat with Urban Rivers, a local nonprofit, and enlisting kayakers to collect data that will help both teams understand if increased habitat in the river can bolster biodiversity.

Shedd has partnered with Urban Rivers to design and build a floating island, called Shedd’s River Island, which will be installed on the North Branch Canal of the Chicago River on Friday, July 6. The island is intended to create new habitat for native wildlife and increase the health of the local ecosystem. It will host up to 15 different plant species that will grow both above and below the water’s surface and feature several habitat structures intended to welcome wildlife, such as fish, turtles and ducks. The island will cover more than 260 sq. ft. of the west bank of the Chicago River on the east side of Goose Island and is part of Urban Rivers’ vision for “The Wild Mile” – the first-ever mile-long floating eco-park.

This project will also include a stewardship program, called Kayak for Conservation, which will introduce Chicagoland residents to this critical urban river ecosystem. Participants, with or without prior kayaking experience, can hop in a kayak and paddle down the river to visit the island. Along the way, kayakers will explore the larger Chicago River ecosystem and the wildlife that calls it home. Following this, paddlers will have the chance to serve as stewards and citizen scientists – taking measurements of growing plants, observing overall ecosystem health, documenting the presence and abundance of local species, removing litter and pulling invasive plants. Information collected will contribute to Shedd’s biodiversity survey of the island and help the aquarium, Urban Rivers and the broader Chicago conservation community better understand what wildlife is present in the canal.

Programs will take place on Thursdays from 2-4 p.m. and Saturdays from 9-11 a.m. beginning Thursday, July 12 and will run through October 27. There will also be evening paddles on the third Thursday of each month before the sun sets.  More information about registering for Kayak for Conservation:


VISUALS: High resolution photos and video are available for download:

Photo credit:©Shedd Aquarium/Hilary Wind
Photo credit: ©Shedd Aquarium/Renee Birk


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