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Virtual Vacations: Exploring Museums, Zoos, and Aquariums Online This Summer - Part Two

With the onset of a global pandemic, online tours and events (“virtual vacations”) became a way for parents to give their kids a cultural experience without having to leave home. While they certainly didn’t take the place of a real camp, they have helped fill in the gaps that the health guidelines created over the last couple of years.

Even as the world opens up, some virtual vacations might be just the thing to cure the dog days of summer. You get to visit places you might never be able to in person, and spend an hour or two soaking up some culture and a little education.

I have personally checked out various museums, zoos, and aquariums, and ranked their tours and online offerings. I rated them (on a scale of 1 to 5 of iconic items from that location) on content, navigation of the experience, and overall fun factor.

In Part Two, I explored the “wilder” side of virtual vacations with a zoo, an aquarium, and a natural history museum.

The Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History

The Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, located physically in Washington D.C. is noted for being one of the best natural history museums in the world with approximately 146 million artifacts and specimens.

Content: 5 fossils

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Now, this is a comprehensive free virtual experience!

  • In permanent and current exhibits you can meet the African Bush Elephant, hear African Voices, and check out gems, insects, human origins, fossils, butterflies and ancient Egypt.
  • Visit past exhibits where you can learn more about the Chilean Mine rescue, narwhals, photography, Iceland, dinosaurs, and Cyprus.
  • Museum support and research centers offer you an insider’s view of how the Smithsonian handles their specimens.  Narrated tours within various halls are available as well.

Of all the “virtual vacations” I had, this one has the most available to see without spending a dime.

Navigation: 5 fossils

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You can zoom rather well, and I was even able to read a little of the placards next to the exhibit pieces. Smooth transitions give you full-room views and there were tons of areas to explore. You can even “take” a picture of your favorite area (a more stylized screenshot).

Fun Factor: 5 fossils

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There is something for everyone in your family, with so much to see within the galleries. The Virtual Science Cafe has online events that you can tune into on certain days and times. The topics ranged (at the time) from pollination, to the evolution of skin tones, and molecules. Events are added frequently, so check back often. And honestly, I just scratched (insert fossil joke here) the surface of what is available through their educational programs and videos!

Monterey Bay Aquarium

With their mission to “inspire conservation of the ocean” the Monterey Bay Aquarium is entertaining, educational, and wonderfully zen.

Content: 5 jellyfish

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  • LIVE CAMS! Despite the absence of an actual virtual tour, the aquarium more than makes up for it with the live cams:

                 Watch sea otters play, birds, jellyfish float serenely, the waves crash on the rocks of

                  the Bay, a kelp forest shimmering (it’s like having an aquarium on your screen),

                  sharks, fish, and stingray glide through the water, penguins marching and more!

This is a perfect, pop in and out kind of activity and you can try a different cam for each day of the week. Pro-Tip: The animals are “on stage” 7am-7pm PT time, but you can tune in outside of those hours for recorded video.

  • On their YouTube page you can find pre-recorded “Animal 101” discussions as well as some animated videos that may appeal to your younger students.

Navigation: 4 jellyfish

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Monterey Bay Aquarium’s website is pretty simple, and it is easy to find what you are looking for with a couple of clicks. The live cams can be found in several places under exhibits. There is no zooming so it mimics what you would see if you were there. If you become a member, you can have access to more exclusive content.

Fun Factor: 4 jellyfish

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You still have to catch the animals at the right time to see them in full action, so for that, I did take off a jellyfish because younger students may get bored quickly if the animals aren’t particularly active at the exact time you are online with them. However, you can leave the cam on and check in with them periodically, something that would be difficult to do in person.

And patience does pay off. At one point during my “visit” the otters were being pretty lowkey (lolling on their backs and gliding through the water) but when I came back a few minutes later they were frolicking with each other and playing with their toys. Plus, on another “trip” to the shark I got to watch divers either feed or medicate two rays and interact with a group of students who were looking on!

San Diego Zoo

With approximately 6,000 animals and a combined space of nearly 2000 acres for them to reside on, of course the San Diego Zoo and Safari Park would be on this list! As an international, nonprofit conservation organization, their mission is to save species worldwide and are dedicated to inspiring passion for nature.

Content: 5 lions

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  • LIVE CAMS! Once again we are treated to animal activity that is real-time (at least during daylight hours). Pro-Tip: I found most of the animals (exception being the owls) to be more active during the morning hours in San Diego.

                 Check in on koalas, baboons, polar bears, penguins, hippos, apes, tigers, elephants,

                  platypus, giraffes, burrowing owls, pandas, and condors. Note: the pandas have                   

                  returned to China but there is some great recorded content.

  • While there isn’t a virtual tour, there are videos that take you around the park to give you a glimpse of their beautiful grounds, and some excellent kid-friendly informational videos about animals. Dr. Zoolittle and Roberta’s work is especially entertaining.

Navigation: 5 lions

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Finding the live cams on the website was simple, and their YouTube channel was easy to find as well. The live cameras show off different angles and provide a more zoomed in view of the animals.

Fun Factor: 5 lions

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This is a great way to check out a world-class zoo without having to go far. The live cams provide up close and personal experiences with the animals, and the YouTube videos provide a wealth of information for any student looking to increase their knowledge about conservation, animal behavior, and care. The zoo’s online experience may just inspire you to check out their gorgeous grounds in person.

No matter where you go, physically or virtually this summer, take time to enjoy the break before the hectic school year begins. With these educational and entertaining virtual tours, live cams, and events you can treat summer as the enjoyable distraction it should be. Encourage a little culture, and some intellectual curiosity with these virtual vacations. 

Bon voyage!

Amy Licht
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