The mission is more urgent than ever before. Worldwide, the ocean is in peril.

Marine wildlife and habitats are threatened by an ever-increasing pace of human activity. And in turn, humans are threatened to lose vital natural systems that sustain the livelihood of future generations. Every minute, a garbage truck worth of plastic is dumped into the ocean. And yearly, a colossal 1.4 billion tons of trash ends up in Earth’s waters.

However, today’s students can turn the tide. Aquariums envision a world in which the ocean is healthy — where people commit to protecting the integrity of a life-sustaining blue planet. Leaders in ocean conversation, aquariums extend their impact by reaching young people who hold the power to change human action and the decisions of policymakers who act on behalf of oceans.

The following four aquariums integrate science-based conservation, protect key species, address climate change and inspire student groups to reduce plastic pollution.

Vancouver Aquarium
Vancouver, British Columbia

Sea lion, Vancouver Aquarium, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada
[/media-credit] Sea lion, Vancouver Aquarium, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada

Groups can come nose to snout with sea lions at “Steller’s Bay,” an exhibit at Vancouver Aquarium. The Ocean Wise initiative immerses students in a sea lion’s world.

“The “Steller’s Bay” exhibit is unlike anything we’ve ever offered, demonstrating our research program while inviting guests to get closer to these charismatic animals and connect with them like never before,” said Dolf DeJong, general manager of Vancouver Aquarium. “Not only will visitors see these magnificent Steller sea lions from a different perspective, but our research-first approach will help create a newfound appreciation for sea lions, the challenges they face in the wild and how Vancouver Aquarium is contributing to science-based conservation solutions.”

Students also can experience Douglas Coupland’s Vortex, a new radical art installation. Stepping into Vortex brings visitors to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, where they are immersed in the plastic pollution crisis.

“We live in a disposable world and it’s having a grave impact on our ocean,” said John Nightingale, Ocean Wise president and CEO. “More than 80 percent of plastic waste in the ocean is coming from land-based sources and every one of us can and should play a role in reducing our plastic use and being more careful of how we dispose of it.”

Vancouver Aquarium’s staff-facilitated student programs last one to two hours. Programs are held in the galleries and behind-the-scenes classrooms, including in the renowned Wet Lab learning facilities.

Greater Cleveland Aquarium
Cleveland, Ohio

Student program, Greater Cleveland Aquarium, Cleveland, Ohio
[/media-credit] Student program, Greater Cleveland Aquarium, Cleveland, Ohio

The FirstEnergy Powerhouse once generated electric power for Cleveland’s streetcar lines. Today, the late-19th-century landmark offers a unique setting for students to learn about life under the sea. Brick backdrops, tunnels and arches have been repurposed to house Greater Cleveland Aquarium’s exhibits.

Jellyfish gracefully float in parts of two former smokestacks and giant steel girders frame a touch pool where students can feel stingrays as they glide by.

“The layout of the Greater Cleveland Aquarium allows for independent student exploration while still following a linear path through the different underwater ecosystems,” said Kristen Jantonio, communications specialist for Destination Cleveland. “The intimate nature of the museum layout combined with different interactive experiences keep students engaged while learning about their favorite underwater creatures.”

Across more than 50 exhibits, students discover creatures like sea dragons, a giant Pacific octopus and African spurred tortoises. A 230,000-gallon SeaTube is home to sharks, stingrays, moray eels and saltwater fish, which swim above and alongside students as they walk through the 175-foot tunnel.

With reservations, groups of up to 30 can help hand-feed stingrays. In addition to a day full of learning, performance groups can make a splash and show off their talents. The aquarium is one of 40 performance venues for student groups in Northeast Ohio.

Shedd Aquarium
Chicago, Illinois

Weedy sea dragon, “Underwater Beauty,” Shedd Aquarium, Chicago, Ill.
[/media-credit] Weedy sea dragon, “Underwater Beauty,” Shedd Aquarium, Chicago, Ill.

From boldly-colored fish and glowing coral to dreamlike patterns of wrasses and tangs, Shedd Aquarium’s new exhibit, “Underwater Beauty,” brings students closer to the stunning and surprising spectrum of shapes, sizes, movements, patterns and colors within the aquatic animal world. Through the exhibit, Shedd aims to inspire the notion of “beauty worth saving.”

“We peel back the water’s surface to connect millions of people to the discovery of animals and life beneath,” said Bridget Coughlin, president and CEO of Shedd Aquarium. “This new special exhibit allows the opportunity to peek at the stunning and unexpected beauty of their world and to be enthralled by their remarkable biology and colorful adaptions. We want students to look nature in the eye and become inspired to take action.”

Featuring more than a thousand animals representing 100 species from across the globe, including eels that ribbon, shrimp that can break glass, sea jellies that pulse and fish that swim backward, “Underwater Beauty” welcomes students with a water wall feature and showcases five distinct rooms. Each is designed to astound the senses and showcase a unique feature or form of beauty under the water’s surface.

Middle and high school groups visiting the aquarium can add on Learning Labs, which focus on subjects like anatomy, lakeshore ecology, pathology and Great Lakes water testing.

Monterey Bay Aquarium
Monterey, California

Resting mother and pup sea otters, Great Tide Pool, Monterey Bay Aquarium, Monterey, Calif.
[/media-credit] Resting mother and pup sea otters, Great Tide Pool, Monterey Bay Aquarium, Monterey, Calif.

More than 35,000 creatures represent over 550 species in 34 major galleries at Monterey Bay Aquarium. It was the first major public aquarium in the world with permanent exhibits devoted to marine life in the waters of Monterey Bay and California’s central coast. And since 1984, more than 2 million students have visited.

“It is an immersive experience connecting the visitor to the ocean life of Monterey Bay,” said Jennifer Matlock, school programs manager for Monterey Bay Aquarium. “We provide direct experiences with marine life. We hope it instills a lifelong love of the ocean that translates into action. Students can have an impact in their own communities and become advocates for ocean policies.”

The aquarium also was the first with a living kelp forest, the first to create large-scale jellyfish exhibits, and the first to successfully exhibit young great white sharks and return them to the wild. Group programs are designed for students to learn, have fun and explore exhibits to discover how each individual is linked to the ocean. School programs support academic standards and complement techers’ classroom curriculums.

“We want students to continue pursuing an interest in the ocean with their teachers, families, friends and on their own,” Matlock said. “I hope students feel a connection to the ocean and become inspired to protect it.”