Finding Water at the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum Aquarium in Tucson

Shady Patio at Arizona Sonora Desert Museum

Shady patio overlooks hazy Tucson on a blistering hot day (photo credit: Chris Eirschele, c 2013)

We wanted to time our walk to see plants and wildlife early in the morning at the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum. Instead, we got lost and were late. When we arrived in town the hazy cloudless sky had already stoked up the mid-day temperature; the hot weather pushed us to change our plans. We found a refreshing alternative at the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum’s new Warden Aquarium.

I swung open the heavy door to the Warden Aquarium and found a cool dark place with a labyrinth of aquarium windows full of shimmering colored creatures. The Rivers to the Sea Exhibition diagrammed area waterways: the Colorado River and the Gulf of California and the impact by summer monsoons on how it all combines to supply the Sonora Desert Region with water. This area of the southwest has been described as one of the lushest deserts on earth.

In Your Bucket Because . . .

  • You like visiting zoos that focus on a region’s natural history.
  • You like learning about desert plants and animals found in the southwestern United States.
  • You like seeing aquatic life you may never see in the wild.
  • Good for families with school-aged children.
Touch Tank at Warden Aquarium

Touch tank for handling delicate marine life (photo credit: Chris Eirschele, c 2013)

Cool Touch Tank at Rivers to the Sea Exhibition

Who does not want to immerse their fingers in refreshing water after being outside in 100-plus-degree temperatures? I thought the Touch Tank was a creative way to give visitors, literally, a hands-on experience. A floor to ceiling wall tacked with large boards printed with environmental stories provided an informative backdrop for places in the aquarium, including the table-top Touch Tank.

Guests are able to softly handle tiny marine invertebrates living in the tank, including sea stars, the chestnut cowrie, and the serpent star. A long bench is set on one side of the tank: The step-up enables small children to see inside.

Freshwater Rivers and Saltwater Gulf Sea

The Warden Aquarium is divided by winding walls between the fresh water rivers, which flow through the Sonora Desert, and the saltwater in the Gulf of California, sometimes called the Sea of Cortez. We followed the story of “The Rivers to the Sea” exhibition, which showed us how these bodies of water nurture the surrounding desert. We looked into small windows backlit with black or blue and found ourselves transported to freshwater and sea life rarely seen by most people.

The displays of the Colorado pike minnows, the largest minnow in North America, and the Apache trout, a native Arizona fish, were visual reminders of how the Colorado River has impacted the desert and vice-a-versa. Over the years, five non-native trout species have been introduced to Arizona, and have taken over 95 percent of the Apache trout’s environment.

Spotted Sharpnosed Puffer Fish

Spotted Sharpnosed Puffer Fish at the Warden Aquarium in Tucson (photo credit: Chuck Eirschele, c 2013)

Living in the Sea of Cortez

The Sea of Cortez is one of the longest inland bodies of water in the world, separating the Baja California Peninsula from Mexico’s mainland. I was surprised to find a storyboard in the aquarium on mangroves, as I had only seen the huge tree-like shrubs growing in Florida. But of course, it makes sense that mangroves thrive here; after all, the land environment may be desert, but Baja has the kind of hot-weather coastal salt-water environment that mangroves like.

The display of seahorses in one tank has grabbed the attention of a young redheaded boy. He is trying to entice the elderly woman with him to take a picture of him. He pressed his cheek flat to the glass next to the Pacific seahorse floating on the other side. Living in the Sea of Cortez, the Pacific seahorse is one of the largest species of seahorse in the world.

Frogfish Mimics His Environment

Frogfish at the Warden Aquarium in the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum (photo credit: Chris Eirschele, c 2013)

My husband panned his camera up to the ceiling where a life-size model of a manta ray hung. It was an impressive comparison to the tiny frogfish I found sitting alone in the corner of his tank. His eyes are easily visible; could he see me, too? I wondered. Frogfish eat crustaceans, but change their color, shape, and skin texture to mimic their surroundings.

Garden Eels and King Angelfish

Garden Eels Plant Themselves in Sand Bed With King Angelfish Looking On (photo credit: Chuck Eirschele, c 2013)

Several kinds of eels were in residence. I was attracted to the bed of spotted garden eels that had planted themselves in the sand and kept the nearby King angelfish company.

We exited the coolness of the Warden Aquarium and headed back into the high heat Tucson had welcomed us with. There were still two miles of paved and graveled pathways to meander over in the 21 acres of wild landscape before us.


  • Located at the front entrance, the Plan-Your-Day board lists that day’s events.Visitors should call ahead for times the Touch Tank is open.
  • Visitors should stay on paved and gravel pathways as some wildlife does freely roam the grounds.
  • Museum offers field trips and summer camps for school age children.
  • Consider using the MyGeoTrex™ Smartphone App for your visit. The program pulls up information about the exhibits you are nearby as you walk the grounds.
Average rating for this trip


  1. Tori Lexington says

    I can’t help myself but to comment on your lovely post. My kids and I went to the Arizona Sea Life Aquarium last week and they loved it! They’ve never seen fishes that big before and it was a blast for them. Thanks to our pogo pass from we got good tickets too. From what your talking about in your article it seems that you have a great passion for this type of stuff. I can see myself getting involved with something like this as well.


Leave a Comment