Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Seeing stars in Santa Cruz

"Hold a sea star, think like a scientist!"
That's the motto at the Seymour Marine Discovery Center in Santa Cruz, California. It's part of the Long Marine Laboratory of University of California, Santa Cruz. And with its strong emphasis on research, low-key exhibits, hard-to-find location, and tiny gift shop, it is a bit different from other aquariums. But the distinction is lost on kids, who seem to love it as much as Monterey's more famous aquarium, as I learn when I drop by with my friend Elaine and her 3-year-old, Milena.  

Its the first Tuesday of the month (free day), so we sail past the ticket desk (admission $6, $4 seniors, students, or kids ages 4-16). Milena skips straight to the touch tank where a nice docent helps her pick up a purple starfish (excuse me, sea star). She spends long minutes ooh-ing over the range of star colors and textures before getting distracted briefly by long strands of kelp (which make great, wet whips, we soon learn). 

Little Milena moves over to the sea anenomes, but first pauses to spend some time neatly stacking up the blue, nesting footstools which allow little ones to step up to the touch tank. Repeatedly.
"If only I could get her to tidy up her room that nicely!" notes Elaine,
with some amazement.

Meanwhile, I drift over to gaze at the Dynamic Planet display—a globe lighted from within that sends images of clouds, hurricanes, and earthquakes (and subsequent tsunamis) cascading across the Earth. It's hypnotic. And somewhat alarming to me (I live in the Bay Area's seismic fault zone—oh well).

"Oh, look at the babies," coos Milena. Well, I think, there are babies all over this joint—the word is out to the stroller brigade about just how kid-friendly this place is. But Milena is talking about the jellyfish she's staring up at in a tall, circular tank. Pulsating white globes fill the tank, and seeming hundreds of them are quite small—about the size of a fingertip. We stare, captivated, for what must be an eternity in a 3-year-old's time frame (1.5 minutes). 

Finally, it's off to Milena's must-see stop: the huge, climb-on-top sculptures of elephant seals in front of the museum—a cute pup, a hefty female, and a Jabba the Hutt -sized male seal. The autumn sun is shining, a crisp breeze is blowing in off the adjacent Pacific, and I gratefully plop myself down for a rest atop the biggest sculpture. I don't think Jabba will mind a bit. 

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