Belle Isle Aquarium
Detroit’s Belle Isle Aquarium is one of southeast Michigan’s best-kept secrets.
Want to go eye-to-eye with a Moray Eel? Or have an unforgettable encounter with an Albino African Clawed Frog? How about peeking in on some Michigan Gar Pike?
You can do all of these things at Belle Isle Park in the city of Detroit. It’s here, on this popular island state park that you’ll find the at-one-time oldest aquarium in North America. It’s a great opportunity to catch a glimpse of the fish and other aquatic species that call our Great Lakes home.
Open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays, it’s a popular spot for school field trips, families, and anyone interested in nature.
Read on to discover everything you need to plan a visit to this amazing public aquarium in southeast Michigan.
Belle Isle State Park
Belle Isle Aquarium is located on 982-acre Belle Isle State Park, in the middle of the Detroit River.
Belle Isle Park has been a Detroit gem since it was purchased by the city of Detroit in the 19th century. It provides a natural retreat and numerous recreational opportunities for both residents of Detroit and visitors to the city, who flock to the island to get in touch with nature while in the city.
It’s not just the pretty setting, either. You’ll find amazing views of the Detroit skyline, the Ambassador Bridge, and Windsor, Ontario, CA.
In addition to the aquarium, Belle Isle offers other fun experiences for visitors. Over the years, institutions on Belle Isle like the Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory, Dossin Great Lakes Museum, and Belle Isle Nature Center have offered unique experiences for guests to learn about and understand what makes the Great Lakes State so special.
A Michigan State Park, Belle Isle is supported by the Belle Isle Conservancy, friends of Belle Isle dedicated to preserving the island’s beautiful setting and rich history.
History of Belle Isle Aquarium
Designed by Detroit architect Albert Kahn, it first opened on August 18, 1904. This makes it older than the Detroit Zoo and a significant historic Detroit landmark. At the time it made history as the third-largest public aquarium in the world.
It remained open until economic hardship in Detroit MI forced its closure in 2005, leaving a legacy of being the oldest continually operating aquarium in North America.
Efforts to reopen succeeded in 2012, however, the city of Detroit filed bankruptcy soon thereafter, leaving Belle Isle’s future uncertain.
After Detroit’s bankruptcy, the park was leased to the state of Michigan. It was under the state’s management that Belle Isle Park became Belle Isle State Park and the aquarium began to truly thrive again.
The Architecture of Belle Isle Aquarium
The Aquarium was designed by architect Albert Kahn with a Beaux Art-style entrance, complete with an ornate arch that features two spitting dolphins and Detroit’s emblem.
Inside, at the center of the building, you will see rare green opaline glass tiles that line the aquarium’s vaulted ceilings.
One of the Belle Isle Conservancy’s goals since taking on the responsibility of the aquarium has been to restore as much of the aquarium as possible, so visitors can enjoy the historic Detroit landmark for years to come.
What to See at the Aquarium
The aquarium and conservatory at Belle Isle offer great opportunities to learn about nature both local and exotic. Walking through, you will travel the globe, from our local Great Lakes to African and South American rivers and lakes, and even the salty depths of the oceans.
One of the largest collections of air-breathing fish and the only known collection of all seven Gar species in North America make up just a fraction of this aquarium’s unique menagerie.
Catfish, Bichir, Arowana, and African Cichlids of all kinds help show off the diverse life found in the world’s freshwater.
Meanwhile, Bluegill, Perch, and the infamously invasive species Asian Carp help us understand our Great Lakes ecosystem while saltwater species like the Red Snapper, Moray Eel, and the familiar Clownfish give us a glimpse into oceans around the world.
Other aquatic species like the Red Eared Slider Turtle, Albino African Clawed Frog, and marine Starfish give context to the complexities of these marine ecosystems in which each animal is dependent on one another.
Frequently Asked Questions
While the aquarium itself has free admission and parking, because Belle Isle is a state park, entry to the island with a vehicle requires a Recreation Passport, which costs about $12 – $17 depending on where it is purchased. Pedestrians and cyclists do not need a Recreation Passport.
Despite being the third-largest in the world at the time of its initial opening, Belle Isle Aquarium is fairly small by today’s standards. You can expect to spend about an hour looking throu
Overall, yes, however, accessible bathrooms are limited and some pathways through gardens, greenspaces, and picnic areas may be difficult to traverse.
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About the Author-
Bella DiMascio is a Content Editor for mymichiganbeach.com. She grew up in the Detroit suburb of Westland and later attended Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo. She majored in Communication Studies and minored in English: Writing. Creative writing has been a hobby and interest of Bella’s since she was in elementary school. She is thrilled to be using her talents to highlight the Great Lakes State. Outside of writing, Bella enjoys getting outside with her two Australian Shepherds, playing video games, and binging shows on Netflix.