Wolffish have jaws powerful enough to crush shells and even bone!
Welcome to the Woods Hole Science Aquarium!
We are a small, public aquarium that displays approximately 140 species of marine animals found in Northeast and Middle Atlantic waters. Admission is free, but donations are gladly accepted.
Learn about the Aquarium
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For information about marine animals, marine science, and resource management, see our resources page »
For directions, reservations, hours, and parking, click on the "Visiting" tab (above).
Established in Woods Hole in 1885, the WHSA is the country’s oldest marine aquarium. It is owned by the federal government, operated by NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service, and partners with the Marine Biological Laboratory on educational programs. The aquarium features:
- Animals of the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic waters
- Exhibit cases with bones, skulls, and teeth
- Information about Woods Hole science and history, fishery science, marine mammals, sea turtles, and local fish species
- Touch tanks where you may find lobsters, small fish, shellfish, starfish, shells, and egg casings
Visitors are allowed behind the scenes, where they can watch the staff feed animals, clean tanks, and work on the life support systems. Approximately 80,000 people visit the aquarium every year, including 10,000 children in school groups.
Nation's Oldest Aquarium?
A Google search reveals that several aquariums claim to be the oldest in the country. None have as good a claim on the title as the Woods Hole Science Aquarium, which arguably started in 1875 when Spencer Baird, the first US Fish Commissioner, established a summer research station in Woods Hole and invited the public in to view the marine animals and learn about the new commission’s research. If that's too flimsy of a claim for our birth year, 1885 is an easily certified founding date, for that is the year the fledgling US Fish Commission in Woods Hole opened a state-of-the-art research building that featured a public aquarium with cabinets for displaying preserved specimens of fish, invertebrates, and birds, and large tanks holding live marine specimens.
A Brief History
Believing that people are entitled to know about work supported by public funds, Baird established a policy of openness in Woods Hole with his public aquarium.
The aquarium thrived in the 19th century laboratory building until 1954, when Hurricane Carol ravaged the village. The badly damaged laboratory and aquarium were torn down in 1958 and replaced by two buildings, one of which has housed the aquarium since 1961.
Now well into its second century, the Woods Hole Science Aquarium continues to carry out the dual missions Baird envisioned: supporting fisheries research and educating the public about marine life and marine science.
In the late 20th century, the aquarium took on a third mission: conservation. The aquarium staff now rehabilitates and releases cold-stunned turtles and provides a permanent home for stranded seals that cannot be released to the wild.
August is our busiest month. In 2018 more than 56,000 people hailing from all 50 states and 56 counties visited us.
A virtual visit to the aquarium.
We are open 11 AM to 4 PM, Monday through Friday. Closed all federal holidays.
NOTE: The aquarium is a federal building and admission is free; however, we welcome donations, which you can put into a box in the lobby.
Wheelchair access The main aquarium gallery is whellchair accessible. A ramp at the rear of the aquarium provides access to the second floor behind-the-scenes area and touch tank. If you need help with wheelchair access please notify the front desk.
No pets allowed. Service dogs permitted.
All strollers must be left outside. Our aquarium display and back-up areas have limited space.
The Woods Hole Science Aquarium displays approximately 140 species of marine animals found in Northeast and Middle-Atlantic U.S. waters. The aquarium is designed for self-guided tours of the main exhibits and a behind-the-scenes look at aquarium operations.
We welcome visits from school groups and civic organizations. Groups larger than 10 should make a reservation by calling 508-495-2267. The busiest season for groups is spring. If you would like to bring a school group anytime from March through June, please call for reservations as early in the school year as possible.
Special NeedsPlease let us know if anyone in your group requires special assistance to tour the aquarium. Many physical impairments and special needs can be accommodated. We have disability parking spaces and a wheelchair ramp near the main entrance.
Visitors should use public transportation if possible. We have no off-street parking available (other than two disability parking spaces). The village has on-street metered parking, but the spots fill up quickly in busy summer months. During the summer, you may want to park in Falmouth and use the Cape Cod Regional Transit Authority bus service.
Activity SheetsOur activity sheets can be answered by carefully viewing our animals and exhibits. Be aware, though, that the aquarium collection will likely be a bit different every time you visit. We focus our activity sheets on animals that are almost always in the aquarium, but occasionally a question might not be answerable on the day you visit.
To view the answer sheets, send us an e-mail or ask the staff when you visit.
We like to hear from our visitors. If you take a few minutes after you have toured to let us know what was and wasn't useful, we will be better able to accommodate you and other visitors in the future. You can e-mail comments to the WHSA staff.
See the some of the animals we care for!
More people are electrocuted by Christmas tree lights annually than by shark attacks.
The collection consists of approximately 140 species of fish and invertebrates (crabs, lobsters, sea stars) found in New England and Mid-Atlantic waters, including tropical fish that ride the Gulf Stream into our waters every summer.
Some animals you may see:
- cod, haddock, flounders, lobster, striped bass, and other animals important to commercial and recreational fishermen
- toadfish, horseshoe crabs, sea urchins, skates, and other animals important to biomedical researchers
- shells, bones, and baleen from endangered turtles and whales
- other animals with unusual colors (blue lobsters), odd life histories (sea bass change gender), or striking appearances (toothy wolfish, lovely angelfish, and sea ravens with their bizarre beards)
Open work area
The work area behind the tanks is open to the public. WHSA visitors can talk to the staff as we prepare food, feed animals, and clean tanks. So come back with your questions and get ready to see some pretty unfamiliar delicacies.
The open work area includes touch tanks where visitors can gently touch marine animals. The touch tanks usually contain labeled shells and a variety of living animals that may include lobsters, crabs, whelks, sea stars, and small fish that don’t mind being touched gently with two fingers.
Dry exhibitsThe aquarium has display cases with bones, skulls, and teeth of sharks and other marine creatures. We also have non-living exhibits on:
- whale protection
- marine turtles
- the science of “aging” fish
- the New England marine environment
NOTE: We have no seals in residence at this time.
Our only outdoor exhibit, the seal habitat includes an enclosed, 17,000 gallon pool that is the permanent home for seals that are unable to live in the wild. When seals are in residence, we usually feed them when we open in the morning and when we close in the afternoon. Feeding sessions are also training sessions during which we make sure the seals get enough exercise and we train them in behaviors that are important for their care. Most training sessions are open to the public.
Toadfish make grunting sounds during mating season like toads.
Aquarium staff and interns have written a few activity sheets that can be answered by carefully viewing our animals and exhibits. Be aware, though, that the aquarium collection is constantly changing as animals grow old and new animals arrive. The collection will be at least a little different every time you visit. We try to focus our activity sheets on animals that are almost always in the aquarium, but occasionally a question might not be answerable on the day you visit.
To view the answer sheets, send us an e-mail to get the password or ask the staff when you visit.
Have questions? Look for answers on our FAQ page.
Our volunteers help us take care of the animals by preparing food, feeding animals, cleaning tanks, and helping our aquarists on other projects. Experience is not necessary – we train our volunteers.
To volunteer you only need to be interested in marine animals or aquarium operations, willing to get your hands dirty, and available for 3-4 hours one morning or afternoon per week for a period of at least four months.
High School Interns (Summer)
The WHSA's summer high school intern program attracts young people from around the country who are interested in animal care, working on special projects, attending seminars and training sessions, serving as naturalists on public collecting walks, and going on field trips to other local science labs and aquaria.
The program is on hiatus in 2019. We look forward to accepting applications in 2020.
College Interns (Summer)
Most summers the aquarium is able to host one or more college interns. These internships are paid positions in the aquarium or in one of the Northeast Fisheries Science Center's research laboratories, available on competitive basis to undergraduates.
The aquarium staff does not run school-year programs, but we are open to working with teachers or students who want to establish a school-year intern experience. Students, teachers, or counselors who want to explore a school year experience should contact Academic Programs Director George Liles.
WHSA staff offers guided collecting walks in local marshes several times a week in summer months. The public may sign up for Collecting Walks in the aquarium lobby.
The aquarium has provided a permanent home for seals that are unable to live in the wild since the late 1980s. Our seals typically come to us through the NOAA Fisheries Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program and are animals that cannot be relased to the wild.
WHSA helps rehabilitate sea turtles that are injured or sick. Most of them arrive here after washing ashore on Cape beaches in the late autumn, when sudden temperature changes can cause "cold stunning.". These animals are not on display. They spend recover their health and body weight in the aquarium’s off-exhibit rehabilitation tanks until they are healthy enough to be returned to the wild.