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Snack Time at the Shark Lagoon
April, 2010 - Issue #66
Budding marine biologists will delight in the up-close-and-personal Aquarium of the Pacific experience.
Budding marine biologists will delight in the up-close-and-personal Aquarium of the Pacific experience.
Aquarium of the Pacific has an abundance of ocean life on display in its tanks and petting pools. Sea snakes, sea horses, anemones, urchins, abalone, eels, seals and more.

But what really grabs the attention of a 5-year-old boy? Sharks.

"Hey Daddy, come here!" Drew shouted from up ahead. "Look - a hammerhead shark."

My budding marine biologist and I watched the creature gliding silently by our heads in the Tropical Reef Habitat. Turns out it's actually a bonnethead shark, which is a member of the hammerhead family. But still, I was impressed with my Kindergartner's shark-spotting skills.

Drew and his sister Laurel, 7, identified quite a few of the animals on display - and not just the tank full of clown fish that looked like "Finding Nemo" stunt doubles. As we bounced from tank to tank in the aquarium's galleries they called out names, pointed at shy residents tucked under rocks, shared science factoids I never would have guessed they knew and asked questions I could actually answer.

Our visit was a field trip for the kids, but it was an illuminating day for all of us. The aquarium manages to capture the diversity of the Pacific Ocean, with exhibits featuring the frozen north, the colorful reefs of the west, and the rich diversity of Baja. What's more, they tie in the impact we have on the ocean as residents of Southern California.

What makes the Aquarium particularly worth visiting is not just the chance to see exotic and endangered ocean species, but to reach out and actually pet some of them - even sharks.

Shark Lagoon is where the action is and Drew and Laurel perched themselves on the edge of the tank. In case you're wondering, or have already dialed Child Protective Services, these are well-fed juvenile sharks. They measure about 18 inches long and pose no threat whatsoever, unless your fingers resemble chopped squid. More on that in a minute.
Drew was hesitant at first, but he followed his sister's lead and soon had his arm in the tank waiting for a bamboo, zebra or epaulette shark to swim within reach.

"Ooh, those feel slimy," he proclaimed when one finally got close enough to touch. A sting ray also calls Shark Lagoon home and we had a chance to pet it, too.

We happened to arrive just before shark lunch and one of the aquarium staff announced that it was feeding time. She made her way around the tank tossing in handfuls of diced squid and other goodies she described as "restaurant-quality seafood."

What ensued would disappoint diehard "Shark Week" viewers. Even my father-in-law's koi get more rowdy at meal time. There was no feeding frenzy. They ate leisurely, probably knowing if they missed this meal, there would be another tomorrow. Despite the casual feel of lunch, the squid server gave repeated reminders to keep our hands out of the tank while the sharks were eating. Apparently they can mistake fingers for squid chunks.

The animals you can feed are the lorikeets. The native Australian birds that look as if they came by their color via my kids' markers traditionally subsist on nectar, flowers, fruits, berries and unripe grain. Their diets at the aquarium are generously subsidized by visitors holding little plastic cups of nectar purchased at the aviary entrance.

Walk into the enclosure and you may find yourself with new friends. Several of the birds were not shy about landing on visitors' arms for a drink. None were so brave with Laurel and Drew. But we did find several birds willing drink from the cup offered by the kids while remaining perched on the fence or trees.

As fun as that was, the birds still couldn't compete with the sharks.

On the way home, Laurel said she wouldn't mind having one as a pet, and would even be willing to cut up squid to feed it.
Eric Harnish lives in Newhall and doesn't sleep with the fishes.

Aquarium of the Pacific
100 Aquarium Way, Long Beach
562-590-3100
www.aquariumofpacific.org
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