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Deep Blue Secrets Revealed at Aquarium of the Pacific

The aquarium offers a swimmingly enjoyable time any time of year

Posted: November 5, 2009 4:46 p.m.
Updated: November 7, 2009 12:00 p.m.

On the "Behind the Scenes" tour, guests feed the marine animals in the giant 350,000-gallon Tropical Reef Habitat.

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It's fall and winter is approaching, but at the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, having fun with the more than 11,000 fish, marine animals and sea birds that live there is a year-around affair.

More than 1.5 million people visit the Aquarium each year, and since spring and summer are the busiest seasons, this is a stellar time of year to go to beat the crowds.

The two-story Aquarium's exhibits and daily programs are presented throughout the year, including underwater dive shows, animal feeding presentations, outdoor animal touch areas, films in its Honda Theater, environmental displays and lots more.

Walking into the aquarium's main entrance into the Great Hall of the Pacific, you see breathtaking, full-scale models of a female blue whale and her calf suspended high overhead.

The ground floor features preview areas of the aquarium's main galleries, which focus on the Pacific Ocean's three major regions - Tropical Pacific, Northern Pacific and Southern California/Baja. Multimedia and interactive displays introduce the inhabitants and seascapes of the three regions, and include specific conservation messages associated with each.

The Blue Cavern, also on the first floor, offers another impressive look at the SoCal/Baja ocean habitat. Almost three stories tall, the cavern is home to leopard sharks, barracuda and other predatory fish, plus California halibut, shovel-nose guitar fish, kelp bass, yellowtail jack, ocean whitefish and giant sea bass, which can live as long as 75 years, weigh about 500 pounds and grow to about six feet long.

Designed around a tropical island theme, Explorers Cove includes the Lorikeet Forest and the Shark Lagoon. In Lorikeet Forest, a walk-through, hands-on aviary filled with dozens of Australian lorikeets, guests can buy small cups of nectar (fruit juice and sugar) to feed the colorful, friendly birds that land on visitors' hands, arms, heads and shoulders.

The nearby Shark Lagoon offers touch pools where guests can reach in and safely touch more than 150 sharks and stingrays. The sharks' skin feels like leather; the sting rays' a little more rubbery.

While it's awe-inspiring to wander through the Great Hall and exhibits soaking up the spectacle all by yourself or with your family, it's even better to round up your crew and take the 45-minute guided "Sharks Behind the Scenes Tour" (for an additional charge based on age).

An aquarium staffer takes small groups of people into the aquarium's "wet side," a section not normally open to the public. You'll get a fascinating look at how shark eggs develop and hatch, hang out backstage with sharks and rays, and take a stroll through the Lorikeet forest to feed and bond with the colorful, friendly birds.

Standing at a railing overlooking the largest of the exhibits - the 350,000-gallon Tropical Reef Habitat, home to 2,000 fish and marine animals - guests get to actually feed the fish with specially prepared dried food provided by the guide.

Taking the tour gives you the inside scoop on just how conscientiously the Aquarium's more than 250 employees and 800-plus volunteers feed and care for the teeming marine life, and how the massive array of sophisticated pumping and filtering equipment keeps the more than 1.1 million gallons of aquarium water circulating and clean.

Along the way, the guide answers questions and offers interesting facts, including that the aquarium is a nonprofit organization that opened in 1998. Its operating budget is $28.6 million a year, with money raised by a combination of admissions, sponsorships, grants, memberships and proceeds from the gift shop and concessions.

A hefty portion of the budget goes to high-quality food for the fish and animals, which, along with the filtered water, helps keep the aquarium's population healthy.

In keeping with its mission to instill a sense of wonder, respect and stewardship for the Pacific Ocean, its inhabitants and its ecosystem, the Aquarium strives to be exceptionally environmentally friendly. It won the 2009 Super Nova Star Award from the Alliance to Save Energy for being a leader in energy efficiency. The ASE also awarded the Aquarium "Climate Action Leader" status, the first of any museums, zoos or aquariums in the U.S. to receive the title.

The aquarium's most recent expansion, the Watershed Environmental Classroom and exhibition, is one of only five LEED platinum-certified buildings in L.A. County (LEED is Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design), and the first carbon-neutral building constructed at any aquarium in the nation.

In an effort to educate visitors and discourage them from eating seafood that's rare, endangered or caught using less than humane methods, the Aquarium recently launched its "Seafood for the Future" program. Created in partnership with a growing list of area restaurants, the campaign encourages diners to choose "green" seafood from the menu that's safe and environmentally friendly to eat.

The aquarium is weathering the recession pretty well, according to PR director Marilyn Padilla. "Our attendance and revenue have continued strong, and we have contained our costs," she said. "We have seen fewer school group visits because of lack of funding for field trips and fewer bookings for night rentals of the facility," which has been a popular location for commercials, TV shows and films over the years.

To augment revenue, the aquarium offers a variety of new on-site spending programs, including the daily "Feed a Shark or Ray" encounters, and allowing for-profit and nonprofit companies like PTAs and charities to sell discounted aquarium tickets online to their employees.

"We also have special late nights, where the aquarium extends its hours to 9 p.m. or 10 p.m. and offers discounted admission," Padilla said. "This has been an extremely popular program and great in adding to attendance and revenue. We will also have extended hours during the holidays."

And if that's not already a full day's-worth of fun, you can catch one of the daily boat excursions at the docks adjacent to the aquarium.

Outside the harbor, depending on the season, you can see dolphins, sea lions and lots of sea birds. Fin whales, the second-largest whales on the planet, are often spotted year-round, while summer is blue whale season and winter is gray whale season. You can also take a 45-minute cruise around the harbor.

There's so much above and below the surface at the Aquarium of the Pacific, seeing it from one end to the other in a single visit is a challenge, but one that's swimmingly enjoyable for all.

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