But at least a few animals survived, including a turtle, an 18-foot African rock python and three alligators that were rescued by nervous firefighters.
There were no human injuries in the fire, and the owner still holds out hope that more of the 60 to 100 dolphins, sharks, lizards, snakes and turtles that were housed in the Ocean City Aquarium may have survived the blaze.
But, says Capt. Bill McDonnell, "They didn't all survive. There's a lot of dead ones."
A neighbor called authorities around 8:15 p.m. Saturday night.
"I heard this explosion. My husband ran down to check it out, and there was a second explosion," said Christina Arsenis, 46, who lives three doors down from the aquarium. "It was a huge fire. You couldn't see the houses on the street for all the smoke."
The four-year-old Ocean City Aquarium has been at the Asbury Avenue location for two years and had 40,000 visitors in 1998.
Firefighters arriving at the one-story pink stucco building found it engulfed in flames and smoke, but officials said none of the three-story homes surrounding the aquarium were threatened by the blaze.
Initially, the firefighters said they couldn't imagine any animals surviving, but as they put out the last smoldering flames, a python was spotted slithering through the building.
It was eventually corralled into a 3-foot white box with holes punched through the top.
"He's out of his cage, and he's not happy," said Deputy Chief Joe Foglio. Foglio said it was possible that fish and sharks had lived through the blaze as well.
After firefighters rescued each of the three 6-foot alligators, aquarium co-owner Angelo Cuculino taped shut their snouts and stuffed them in the back of his wife's 1988 Mazda, where they sat quietly while firefighters began to tally the damage.
At least 12 iguanas and 24 snakes were found dead inside the gutted building.
"I can't even describe my emotions. I'm devastated," said Cuculino. "There's no words to describe it. It's just terrible."
Firefighters early Sunday declined to speculate on the cause of the fire, but said the building is a total loss.
In June, 1998, about 200 animals perished when the Cape May County Park Zoo reptile house burned to the ground in an electrical fire. The reptile house reopened two weeks ago.