Sea Life brings fins and fun to Auburn Hills

Melody Baetens
The Detroit News

Did you know that a starfish ejects its stomach on top of its prey to digest its catch? Or that an octopus has the ability to recognize the faces of people she sees regularly?

These facts and so much more are up for kids and adults to learn when the Sea Life Michigan aquarium opens today, adding jellyfish, sharks, sea urchins and more to Great Lakes Crossing's lists of attractions.

The 35,000-square-foot aquarium — in the Auburn Hills mall's District 7 and smartly next to the Rainforest Cafe — has thousands of underwater animals, from tiny seahorses just a few centimeters in length to the majestic southern stingray with a 4-foot wingspan.

Brennen Vechazone of Waterford likes the way you can view the many stingrays swimming up close at Sea Life. A young environmentalist, he says he likes the stingray because it has "personality."

"I think it's awe-inspiring for kids and parents because they get to see all these exotic creatures that we don't see because we're in Michigan and there's fresh water surrounding us," says the 11-year-old, who got a chance to attend a sneak preview of Sea Life last week by winning a social media contest.

The whole attraction is extremely kid-friendly. From the cartoon sea creatures who guide visitors through the exhibit, to the portholes at knee level, the experience seems tailored to children of all ages. It's exciting for anyone who enjoys animals or the sea, though. Concave windows make you feel like you've stuck your head in the tank (but without getting wet).

"It's amazing, it's captivating the children's interest," says Amber Louchart, blogger and owner of parenting website She attended the sneak preview with her three children, ages 2, 5 and 19. "We're excited to have something like this in Metro Detroit."

One of the first "wow moments" comes with the interactive touch pool. Reach in and pet a starfish, sea urchin or horseshoe crab (yes, there's a hand washing sink nearby). Sea Life employees stand by to guide little ones and answer questions.

Another exhibit tips a hat to Michigan's underwater creatures with freshwater marine life such as sturgeon, bullhead catfish and largemouth bass. There are also aquariums housing jellyfish, a green moray eel and a giant Pacific octopus.

There are less elaborate displays throughout the aquarium, such as the calming, blue circular tank with white sand that houses a school of silver fish swimming 360 degrees around you. Get into a staring contest with a puffer fish in a darkened area designed to look like a shipwreck, or try to spot fish that look like your favorite cartoon characters such as Nemo (clownfish) or Dory (regal tang).

The big finale is a massive structure made to look like a coral reef and a walk-through tunnel, where visitors can view sharks and stingrays swimming above them. Most of the 150,000 gallons of water used at Sea Life is in this exhibit, which has many viewpoints.

"We want people to come and see things from every angle," says Sea Life Michigan curator Lucy Handel. "That helps them to learn more and get passionate about the whole environment."

Environment and conservation are themes throughout Sea Life, which is operated by Merlin Entertainments, based in the United Kingdom. The Great Lakes Crossing location is among 42 around the world and is the seventh in the United States. The message is "breed, rescue and protect."

After you've studied all 250 species, exit through the gift shop (which sells everything from Sea Life coffee mugs to Sea Life spatulas), or take another lap. With 5,000 marine animals inside, there's bound to be something you missed the first time around.

Sea Life


Great Lakes Crossing

4316 Baldwin

Auburn Hills

Grand opening Thursday

Hours: 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays and 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Sundays. The last guests are allowed in one hour prior to closing.

Admission: $23.50, ages 13 and older; $18.50, children. Yearly passes start at $54 for a limited time. Birthday party packages are


Belle Isle Aquarium

The addition of Sea Life at Great Lakes Crossing means that there are now two aquariums in Metro Detroit. The Belle Isle Aquarium, open 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Sat.-Sun., is 10,000-square-foot Albert Kahn-designed building. When it closed in 2005, it had been the longest-running public aquarium in North America. It reopened in 2012 and is now home to fish, turtles, seahorses, anemones and more. Admission is free, but a Recreation Passport ($11, available on the island) is needed to access Belle Isle, starting in February.