MIAMI — Andy Dehart saw his first shark at age 5 when he was snorkeling with his dad in the Florida Keys, and he credits that sighting as inspiration for his lifelong devotion to the marine environment.
“I’m very passionate about getting kids connected to marine ecology. We need the next generation. Public aquariums are the perfect place to get that spark going,’’ said Dehart, who has the impressive title of vice president of animal husbandry at the Phillip and Patricia Frost Museum of Science.
Even more impressive is the museum itself — also simply referred to as Frost Science — the newest addition to the growing Miami cityscape. With a mission to inspire interest in the wonder and power of science, the new 250,000-square-foot campus is already a popular attraction for locals and visitors. Open since May, the museum’s four wings house a planetarium, three-level aquarium, open aviary with rehabilitated birds, permanent and changing interactive exhibitions, and learning center where scientists in the Inventors-in-Residence program share their projects with the public.
On a recent Friday morning, the museum was buzzing with kids of all ages. On the top floor of the aquarium (The Vista), breathtaking views of cruise ships and Miami’s skyline compete with the 100-foot wide, 500,000-gallion tank where mahi-mahi, devil rays, tuna, and hammerhead sharks cavort. Two levels below (The Deep), one can stand beneath a 31-foot-wide oculus lens, a viewing portal looking up through the aquarium, and observe the same fish cruising overhead. Between these levels (The Dive), nearly 30 unique aquariums and interactive environments showcase the diversity of the tropical seas, and offer a fish eye view of reefs populated with snapper, grouper, snook, and other species. In several illuminated tanks, pulsating jellyfish perform hypnotic, silent dances.
Every exhibition, be it about the physics of flight, the solar system and universe, the biology of the body and mind, or environmental science, include hands-on experiences to enhance learning at every age level.
“We mix a sense of whimsy with higher scientific concepts,’’ said Leah Melber Knight, the vice president of education.
MeLab is a zone where kids can learn about science and health while playing, moving, and occasionally jumping about on an interactive sound-and-color-lighted floor. For ages 6 and under, the “River of Grass’’ exhibit is an indoor virtual Everglades, with adjacent outdoor water tables for hands-on fun. In addition to permanent and changing exhibitions, pop-up tables throughout the museum (such as a recent liquid nitrogen station) allow more ways for visitors to actively participate in science.
In a city where ambient light blocks out all but a few of the night’s brightest stars, it’s no wonder that the Frost Planetarium is one of the museum’s most popular features. Accommodating 250 guests in stadium-style seats under an enormous tilted dome, the planetarium’s daily science shows wow visitors with visual journeys to outer space, inside the human body, or the depths of the ocean. Those visiting Miami on the first and third Fridays of the month can rock out beneath the dome to retro laser light extravaganzas — using 3-D glasses. Six shows a night feature a changing roster of music styles, from the Beatles to Beyoncé to Michael Jackson and more.
Adjacent to Frost Science is the Pérez Art Museum Miami, a sister-museum in Miami’s 30-acre Museum Park overlooking Biscayne Bay. The Perez collects and exhibits modern and contemporary international art of the 20th and 21st centuries. (pamm.org) One could easily spend an entire day at either or both museums.
Of course all young budding scientists and artists need sustenance. Not to worry, there are tasty food options at both venues. Food@Science offers family-friendly and casual dining, with menus featuring fresh salads, sandwiches, tacos, a coffee bar, plus wine and beer. At PAMM, Verde Restaurant and Bar serves an international menu of large plates and light bites, including pizzas, tuna tartare, seasonal ceviche, sandwiches, salads, and full bar with specialty cocktails.
Frost Science, 1101 Biscayne Blvd., Miami. 305-434-9600, www.frostscience.org