NORTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — It was hard to tell who was having more fun, the octopus or the kids.
Ivory, a small octopus from local waters, latched onto a small jar containing a piece of fish in his tank at Biomes Marine Biology Center. Wrapping his tentacles around it, he twisted the cap off and gobbled down the treat inside.
Cassidy Hale, 4, and her brother, Jason, 7, erupted in giggles before darting off to other creatures.
Besides Ivory, there was Darwin the tortoise, as well as sharks, fiddler crabs, squat lobsters, skates, fish, and more — about 2,500 animals in all. Fun rules the day at this 12,000-square-foot, family-friendly education center, said Mark Hall, owner and founder.
“We have lots of things for kids and families here,” said Hall, who moved the center to this location in a former furniture store from a smaller site across town last November, boosting its size sevenfold. “We really focus on hands-on programs.”
Darwin, for example, came right up to the Hale siblings, lumbering out from under his heat lamp, drawn by cabbage leaves Hall put down. There’s a shark tank with child-high sides for kids to lean over and pet the 3-foot-long dogfish sharks when they playfully stick their heads out of the water. There’s also a tide pool with sea anemones, starfish, and other nautical critters.
Biomes is New England’s only private marine education facility and the largest aquarium in Rhode Island, Hall said. It’s a hugely popular site for kids on school vacations, and with school groups that regularly come through. The center also does outreach programs, bringing animals to classrooms around the state.
Children of all ages can be entertained while learning, Hall said.
“We hired a woman who ran a play center locally and built one here at the center,” he said. “She does story hours now, featuring an animal of the week with a story about it. It’s for younger kids, because 3-year-olds can only learn so much just walking around, but in the program they learn about the animal with a story attached to it.”
A huge plus in getting Boston-area families down to Rhode Island is the train: The Wickford Junction Commuter Rail Station opened a year ago, part of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority system. There are buses that run from the station to local stops, including one in front of Biomes, Hall said.
“Now people from Boston can get down here without setting foot in a car,” he said.
And if you want to see Ivory do his thing, just ask. “He likes doing it,” Hall said. “And he’s gotten really good at opening the jar.”