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Take a daytrip to explore a tropical aquarium in Iowa

The hybrid institution offers a mix of education and fun, featuring two distinct areas focusing on the Mississippi River and the tropical seas.

DUBUQUE, Iowa — Nestled in the scenic Port of Dubuque, Iowa, sits an expansive campus dedicated to the Mississippi River, showing how the river is connected to the waters of the world.

The National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium consists of two distinct areas, one dedicated to the Mississippi River itself, the other to the creatures of the tropical salt waters.

The area covers 14 acres. “We offer two buildings. One is considered the freshwater building, which is the one with the iconic paddle wheel. The other building is our saltwater building that has more of our oceanic animals," Emily Adlfinger, the museum's marketing communications manager, said.

The museum is celebrating 20 years this summer, having opened in 2003. It is run by the Dubuque County Historical Society.

Along with the attractions, the buildings also house the National Rivers Hall of Fame.

"It's kind of just a really great hub to have all this river history in one place. And we're just so fortunate that Dubuque is where that gets to be,” Adlfinger said.

One of the featured areas is the Mississippi River Center. It features the topics that impact the river, along with the animals that call it home. 

Its oldest resident is an alligator named "Mama," who will be celebrating her 50th birthday this summer.

There are also two playful North American river otters. The pair came to the museum as pups and are 7 years old now. Their names are Tom Sawyer and Becky Thatcher, an ode to author Mark Twain's "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer."

In the other main building, there is the 'Rivers to the Sea' exhibit, the newest permanent exhibit that recently got an extensive renovation.

“That exhibit features 12 new aquariums (with) 100 species. It's absolutely stunning and one that you definitely want to add to your list,” Adlfinger said.

There you'll find bright aquariums full of species ranging from Regal Blue Tang to puffer fish, a shy octopus, and a tide pool touch tank full of anemones and starfish.

One popular feature with an experience you might not expect in Iowa is a stingray touch tank. A fever of stingrays circle around, allowing guests to lean in and touch their backs gently with two fingers. The stingers have been removed for safety. The rays are playful, sometimes moving around pool toy rings with their noses.

Both buildings have permanent exhibits and rotate fresh things in and out in temporary shows each year. 

One permanent exhibit resides in the harbor outside. A historic steam dredge boat named the William M. Black was built in 1934 and was listed as a National Historic Landmark in 1992. The boat is open to tours during the warmer months.

The summer 2023 exhibit is called "POPnology." According to Adlfinger, “it talks about how some of our most beloved sci-fi movies and some of our favorite authors created ideas that we actually see nowadays.”

Since 2003, the museum and aquarium has welcomed 3.5 million guests. This past March during the Spring Break rush, they welcomed 12,000 visitors in one week. Their guest list includes people from every state and more than 70 countries.

Students come for a dose of education through entertainment. The museum often hosts field trips, especially for kids in 5th through 8th grades.

“We have a great education program with a lot offerings for kids from ages preschool all the way up through high school," Adlfinger said.

They also offer conservation programming for high schoolers career exploration.

But it's not just for kids, as the museum also caters to adults with specific talks and experiences.

“Adults come in, you see the amazing smiles, the wonder on their faces. They even learn something new when they come here. So truly something for all ages, and it's a really great experience,” Adlfinger said.

When guests buy a ticket, it’s good for two days of exploration. Museum staff recommend planning to spend a couple of hours at minimum for the visit. There are also special experience add-ons, like stingray feedings, 4-D theater movies, and a behind the scenes tour.

“When you're coming to the National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium, you're gonna hear two things, one, Museum and (two) Aquarium. We are a hybrid institution, which is really rare and not something that you see most times. Usually you go somewhere and it's just an aquarium, or it's a zoo, or it's just a museum. And we have a little bit of both,” Adlfinger said.

The museum is located at 350 East 3rd Street, Port of Dubuque, Iowa. The hours vary seasonally and can be found here, along with admission rates.

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