Underwater Viewing (and Penguins) - Shedd Aquarium

The lower level of the ocenarium includes underwater dolphin and whale viewing, penguins, underwater otter viewing, a sea star touch area, and Shedd’s two play areas: the penguin play area and the submarine play area. These are laid out along a long corridor, which curves around the main tanks for the dolphins and whales.

Restrooms are at one end of the corridor, by the sea star touch area. Get to Underwater Viewing from stairs or elevators from the higher levels of the oceanarium. In general I prefer to go down on the side of the Sounds Cafe / Bubble Net Food Court so that the play areas are at the end of the corridor, rather than the beginning. In can be helpful to time underwater viewing just before lunch: it's a lot easier to pull the kids away from the play area when it's to go to lunch.

Click More Information for a lot more details on each section of Underwater Viewing.


The underwater viewing level is one long hallway, and the stairs/elevators just take you to either end. I’ll describe it starting at the end you’d get to by going down the side of Soundings Café. The first thing you’ll see is a small animal touch area.

The first area is called “Shallow Ocean” and has small pools where you can touch real starfish, as well as an area for to touch pretend anemone.

Ahead is the “Deep Ocean” with a series of windows with the best underwater viewing for whales and dolphins. The first window is a separate tank and often has no animals. The next several windows are the main tank, directly underneath the aquatic show. These are most often dolphins but may be the beluga whales. You may need to look for a while—this is a large tank that is often lit fairly dimly, so you won’t be able to see animals at the other end. There are great ledges along each window, giving smaller kids an opportunity to climb up for better views. This area also has the “Deep Ocean Café” which has some food and small snacks when it’s open—though it’s only open on the busiest days. There are also several tables that are good for eating food that you’ve brought (especially when the Deep Ocean Café is closed, but I’ve never had a problem eating there, even when the café is open).

Continuing along the long corridor, you’ll reach the penguins. This is a really well-designed area with floor-to-ceiling windows, that the water goes partway up, so you can easily see above and below the water line. There are two types of penguins here: Rockhopper and Magellanic—they’re easy to distinguish by the yellow lines of feathers near their eyes which are only on adult Rockhoppers. The artificial daylight is varied, based on the penguins’ natural South American habitat—except shifted six months so that Chicago’s busy summers have the longest days. As a result, if you visit in the winter, there will be shorter days (around 9-2:30 at the shortest, plus it’s totally closed for cleaning a week or two each year during the winter).

Behind the penguin exhibit is the penguin play area, with rocks to climb on and penguin costumes to wear, a tunnel to climb through, and pretend penguin nests to tend. There is computer-created video of penguins on the wall behind the play area—the video will occasionally switch to storms with thunder and lightning. This area is particularly aimed at younger kids. With lots of climbing, it can be a little harrowing until kids are adept on playgrounds. Kids are not supposed to run or jump in the play area, although compliance is minimal, so it’s not always the best place for 1-2 year-olds, especially on busy days or when large groups come through. There are nice walls with only one narrow entrance and exit, and benches along the inside, so it’s easy to give kids a little more space to play (although it does create frequent log jams).

At the far end of the corridor is the underwater viewing of beluga whales and the submarine play area. The beluga viewing area is not large, so it can be fairly crowded, but the belugas are often up close to the windows for great views.

The submarine play area is typically jam-packed with kids, and tends towards older, but younger kids can usually find a place to wedge in and enjoy. There are lots of large dials and buttons, and even controls for a robotic arm. This tends to be the hardest exhibit to pull my kids away from, so I often plan out my visit to end here (or strategically enter and leave from the other end of the corridor to avoid it entirely).