Here at the Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium, the legendary waterway’s ecosystems come to life inside these massive aquariums. Whether it’s the enormous catfish in the freshwater tank, or the sharks and rays inside the two-story saltwater aquarium, this operation is a lesson in environmental science that anyone can appreciate.
It seems discovery is waiting around every corner. Stretched across two structures, the National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium tells the tale of America’s most treasured resource for river commerce and aquatic life.
The Mississippi River Center houses six aquarium tanks…filled with sturgeon, turtles and giant catfish…some weighing-in larger than the human guests. You’ll also find dozens of interactive displays connecting visitors to an often-overlooked resource.
John Sutter: I grew up on the Mississippi River here in Dubuque, Iowa and you take the river for granted after awhile. You just drive over the bridge and there it is. When you come here and really learn what the river means and what it means to so many people it really gives you a new appreciation for the river. We think that’s important so that people learn and understand how to take care of the river.
That appreciation may come in the form of aquatic life but it can also be found in the resources that demonstrate the grand scale of the Mississippi.
The fourth longest river in the world begins at Itasca State Park in Minnesota…where it briefly flows north. Passing along the eastern border of Iowa, the waterway eventually merges into the Gulf of Mexico….a total journey of 2,530 miles.
It’s estimated that a raindrop that falls near Itasca State Park travels for 90 days down the Mississippi River before reaching the Gulf.
Those headwaters of the Mississippi trickle through a series of stones at Minnesota’s Itasca State Park. It’s a far cry from the vast expanse that flows past Iowa or the saltwater of the Gulf of Mexico…but each ecosystem is on full display in Dubuque.
John Sutter: The Mississippi River Center focuses mainly on the Mississippi River and its tributaries. The National River Center, which opened in 2010, explores all of the nation’s great rivers and their affect on the ocean.
The centerpiece is a 40,000 gallon aquarium with an awe-inspiring view usually reserved for oceanic scuba divers. A variety of fish, rays, eels, and a nurse shark can be seen within a salt-water ecosystem transported to northeast Iowa. The aquarium staff took us behind the scenes.
Kellie: So, Jackie, there’s probably a lot of science that goes into keeping a tank this large running.
Jackie: Right. We have to do water quality tests weekly. We test for different things such as pH, which we have to keep our pH at about an 8. We also test for salinity since it is saltwater and usually we run that between 30 and 33, right around in there. The temperature of this tank is about 76 to 78 degrees. And then we also run ammonia and nitrates as well.
Kellie: So do all of the fish seem to get along together in the tank?
Jackie: Yeah, they get along for the most part. I think right now the eels are the dominant species and so they kind of rule the tank. But otherwise they all get along for the most part.
The aquarium is home to a giant Pacific octopus named Walter. This is Walter. You can see his tentacles, his eye and his mantle. He pushes water through there. That is why it billows up. Walter is very intelligent. He can solve mazes. He can unscrew jar lids to retrieve food. But my favorite part is that within his tissues he can contract and expand his pigments so that he can change his color to fit whatever environment is behind him. Very cool.
It is hard to ignore our nation's history without the people that for generations praised the Mississippi as an important resource.
The museum's National Rivers Hall of Fame features the men and women who through science or culture have raised awareness and understanding of this majestic waterway.
A list that includes America's early adventurers that were the first to discover the vast expanse of its tributaries, and the musicians and writers that created a lively and often mystical image of the mighty Mississippi. One of its members, legendary author Mark Twain, once wrote: The Mississippi River will always have its own way. No engineering skill can persuade it to do otherwise.
The engineering skill that for generations sought to tame the river is on full display in Dubuque. The museum pays homage to the lock and dam system that served as the backbone of river commerce up and down the Mississippi. But if test driving a barge of full of raw commodities isn't your idea of fun there is always time to sit back and enjoy the creatures of the Mississippi.
Our hope is that when our visitors leave that they leave here with a greater appreciate of our rivers and take home a can do attitude of I can do things to affect and have a positive impact on our waterways.