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Under the Sea: The Joys of Aquariums

Bottoms Up! Otter Explores Bucket in Georgia Aquarium
I’ve always had a fondness for aquariums, especially in the summer. Zoos can be hot, overly bright, noisy, and, unsurprisingly, redolent of their various inhabitants. By contrast, aquariums tend to be temperature-controlled, softly lit, reasonably quiet—give or take the occasional dolphin-click, whale song, waterfowl squawk, or seal bark—and less odoriferous, provided you don’t mind the smells of brine and sea wrack.  And there’s something soothing, even hypnotic, about watching multicolored fish or sea mammals glide silently through the waters of their tanks, while kelp forests sway in the current.

I’ve been to several fine aquariums over the years: Monterey Bay, with its charming sea otter exhibit; Stanley Park, Vancouver, where I first saw beluga whales; and Georgia, which boasts an amazing collection of aquatic life that includes whales, dolphins, otters, penguins, and an albino alligator (the latter looked like something out of a critter-centric horror movie!)
A Ghostly Gator!
Most recently, I visited a small but very engaging aquarium, located on Stearns Wharf in Santa Barbara. Informally known as the “Sea Center,” this aquarium doesn’t have enough space to accommodate whales, dolphins, or otters. But it has some fine touch pools and a friendly, knowledgeable staff on hand to answer questions and provide information on the animals.

Haven't they gone home yet? We wanna sleeeep!
One of the most popular pools contains swell sharks—so called because they can inflate themselves to several times their normal size—and thornback rays, named for the numerous spines on their back. The touch pool attendant would pick up a shark so patrons could stroke its tough, almost rubbery hide. (By the end of the day, the sharks—possibly worn out from so much handling—had gathered in a big pile to sleep, like a litter of puppies.)

Meanwhile, the rays would skim along the bottom of the tank, just out of reach of the visitors. One ray, however, was so friendly or so curious that it would continually wriggle up towards the surface, and then swim back and forth along the perimeter of the tank, occasionally poking its nose above the water as if inviting a caress (despite its name, a thornback’s skin is smoother than a shark’s).

Hi there! You can call me "Ray."
Another touch pool, very popular with children, contained a collection of starfish in varying colors and sizes.

Catch a falling--or swimming--star
Still another tank was devoted to tidepool specimens, which tended to be soft-bodied organisms, like anemones, that could bend with the current or hard-bodied ones that could burrow into rock or sand to withstand it. At intervals, water would suddenly gush into the tanks to mimic the action of ocean tides. This tank also boasted a low-ceilinged tunnel that showed an underwater perspective. It’s a tight squeeze for an adult, but you can manage it if you crouch—and keep your head down!

"There is a tide in the affairs of fish..."
 Upstairs at the sea center were tanks containing brightly colored nudibranches . . .

Neither nude nor branchlike

  …a very active two-spot octopus . . . 

"I marvel at thee, Octopus..."

…and moon jellies, floating and pulsing in the water like blobs of some phosphorescent alien plasma!

Dance by the light of the moon jelly
All in all, a pleasant way to spend a summer afternoon. And the rest of Stearns Wharf is worth seeing too. A terrible fire in 1998 gutted several businesses, but all of them have since been restored, so well that even I—a former Santa Barbara resident—can’t tell the difference!

Pamela Sherwood


  1. I'm actually really anti-aquarium. I can't imagine having a whole ocean and then being captured and confined to a small tank. Makes me sad.

  2. An understandable viewpoint, Shana. Many people feel the same way about zoos. Yet I can understand the rationale for aquariums and zoos existing when it comes to species endangered by excessive predation, environmental pollutants, or dwindling natural habitats.


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