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Sea Creatures are Prime Aquarium Attractions for Kids

It's not true that the world is going to the dogs. It's going to the sea creatures instead. Maybe Keiko, the killer whale from the movie Free Willy started it all. But it seems as if there's a mad rush on to let every travelling family pat a whale, kiss a star fish, or as in the new Underwater World in San Francisco, travel along an underground moving sidewalk separated by a plexiglass wall from some 10,000 swimming creatures above. Some hotels, such as The Southampton Princess in Bermuda, are offering family dolphin encounters. The Hotel Atlantis on Paradise Island in the Bahamas includes 16 aquarium experts on staff and even has its own fish curator to oversee the tanks of fish, lagoons of turtles, and other fishy details of its 14-acre waterscape.

Things have certainly come a long way since seaside towns caught few fish from surrounding waters, put them into tanks, and opened an instant aquarium. In many cases, the exhibits were intended to scare rather than enthrall. We especially remember two bizarre seaside attractions. One was an aquarium built at the end of a pier in a family resort town in Holland. The theme was 20,000 leagues under the sea, the building was shaped like a boat, and the highlight was a "giant sea creature" caught underneath who came up periodically to whack at the portholes above. It absolutely terrified my daughter who could not be convinced that the monster was a fake. Another memorable exhibit was at a coastal town in northern France. In the middle of the aquarium entrance hall was a tank of electric eels who would zap a hooked-up battery device if you pressed on a certain spot on the glass. The kids visiting of course loved this display. But I wondered just how many charges per hour were good for the poor overworked eels.

Now that the city fathers in Collingwood and Toronto are talking about building major aquariums, perhaps they could take some cues from family-friendly institutions around the world whose displays work with the natural world and still delight. We've found that the giant shows with whales and porpoises are fine, but the kids prefer to handle a peeing star fish, hold squishy sea cucumbers and look a sea otter in the eye. Here are a couple of places that will be sure to please your youngsters if you happen to be in the vicinity this winter:

THE MONTEREY BAY AQUARIUM, CALIFORNIA COAST: We were told that this former sardine cannery (of John Steinbeck's Cannery Row) turned aquatic research insititute was so popular that we should either arrive before the doors open or buy advance tickets from our hotel. This was good advice. We entered as the doors opened and didn't have to fight the crowds to view the aquarium showpiece-a three-storey-high kelp forest. As much as the kids loved watching the thousands of creatures swim between the waving seaweed, however, this place was made to keep the sea critters happy. Sharks get a nice long 90-ft. glide path in the hourglass-shaped tank with an easy turnaround at either end. The crabs in the tide pools are swamped every 40 seconds with huge man-made waves piped from a reservoir. The adorable sea otters, most of them orphaned when rough surf separated them from their mothers, are played with and coddled by substitute diver moms until they're ready for the ocean; injured sharks are nursed back to health. If you've got kids crazy about marine biology, they'll be enchanted. Ours loved examining a shark's tooth, watching the furry otters cavort, and patting a bat ray in the touching tanks. New this year is a jelly fish gallery. Afterward, you can rent kayaks from Monterey Bay Kayaks (tel: 408-373-KELP) and paddle around the kelp beds where the otters hang out. Call 1-800-756-3737 for advance tickets.

CORAL WORLD, NASSAU, BAHAMAS: This small fish park is Nassau's most popular tourist attraction. It's perfect for younger children. There are "petting pools" where kids can touch conch, hermit crabs, starfish and sea cucumbers, a shark tank where we saw a baby shark nursing, and a wildlife area with flamingoes and parrots. Older kids can rent snorkel gear to swim in the small bay (although we didn't see too much when we were there last March - the bay was too rough). The highlight is a glass-enclosed 360 degree underwater observatory that's separated from the mainland by a bridge. Just beyond the walls is a natural coral reef where sharks, moray eels, spiny lobsters and tropical fish congregate. Because it's a natural aquarium, you never know what will swim past. On the rough day that we were there, sharks and other huge fish, lobsters and sea horses (that magically turned themselves yellow, orange, or green depending on the coral they were clinging to) were using the circular walls for protection. We could see them swishing back and forth with the current. Afterwards, we had a Bahamian picnic on the small beach across the road from the entrance. Call 242-328-1036 for information.





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