TAMPA — The first thing you see when you walk up to the entrance of the Florida Aquarium is a huge sculpture of a manta ray, its wings spread wide, its soaring figure casting a broad shadow across the sidewalk. It looks for all the world like Mr. Ray, the gregarious teacher from the movie Finding Nemo. • It's also an apt symbol for the 14-year-old aquarium, which has big ambitions and a fairly broad reach. But unlike the manta ray sculpture, the Florida Aquarium doesn't always soar. In a couple of key places it — ahem! — flounders. So with a bit of help from that little clown fish movie, lets take a look at this Gulf Coast vacation destination that boasts 20,000 aquatic plants and animals in its various exhibits.
Let's name the zones, the zones, the zones: The aquarium's exhibits do an excellent job of explaining Florida's aquatic habitats — its freshwater swamps, its coastal mangroves, the offshore reefs — and showcasing what lives there. Visitors marvel at the playful otters, the toothy gators, the vivid pink feathers on the roseate spoonbills. The fact that you can be this close to the spoonbills to see their plumage is worth making the trip.
If you want to see what's happening beyond Florida's shores, you can check out the Pacific reef exhibits, which include colorful anemones — Nemo had trouble saying that — starfish and one very shy octopus. The "no-bone zone" touch tank features a variety of starfish that can feel hard and prickly, soft and spongy or somewhere in between. Don't forget to hit the hand sanitizer at the end of the tank.
And of course, the penguin show is a joy because you can get up close and personal with the tuxedoed ones. The exhibit of Australian sea dragons, a close relative to sea horses, draws lots of ooohhs and aahhhhs too.
Shark bait! Hoo ha ha!: If you love Jaws more than Nemo, you'll love that tank after tank features bonnetheads, nurse sharks, you name it. And of course there's the main shark tank, which features a show where a diver goes into the tank and, while underwater, answers questions from the crowd.
That said, there's a good reason why the sculpture out front doesn't feature a great white. There are more rays at the Florida Aquarium than in Tropicana Field's dugout. The first exhibit you see past the entrance is the remodeled ray touch tank, twice as big as the original and with windows near the floor so kids can better see its dozen rays. There's also another rays tank in the beaches section — not a touch tank, but a place where you can see a staffer in rubber boots wade in and feed the occupants. And the aquarium recently added a 350-pound pink whipray — its wingspan is 5 feet — to the shark tank.
Fish are friends, not food: Two years ago the aquarium added a fun new feature called "Call A Creature" that allows visitors to dial up commentary on the displays from alligators, owls and other animals. There's nothing like punching in a code and hearing, "Hello there! I'm an upside-down jellyfish . . ." The other way to spice up your visit is to pay for one of the behind-the-scenes tours or an encounter with the animals. For instance, for $65 ($50 members), which includes admission, you can help out with a shark feeding.
All drains lead to the ocean: If you're a parent, your first stop at the aquarium should be outside: Explore a Shore, the waterfront splash pad for kids. Use the cabanas to change them into their swim togs, then turn them loose to shoot off the water cannons, climb the pirate ship's rigging, pretend to surf through the concrete wave or simply stand still and enjoy being spritzed by the small fountains. For the adults, the Caribbean Cantina offers not just a good vantage point for watching the kids' antics, but also a selection of drinks and appetizers. After about an hour, the kids will have finished shaking their sillies out, so you can put them in some dry clothes and tour the indoor exhibits without too much wiggling.
Hey there, Mr. Grumpy Gills: Okay, now for the bad. The weakest part of the Florida Aquarium is its Cafe Ray, the indoor cafeteria that sells a la carte sandwiches, grill items and drinks.
Unlike Disney World, the aquarium does not allow you to bring in food or drink, but what you can buy off the cafe's menu leaves a lot to be desired. A pizza with four little slices of pepperoni on it barely deserves to be called a pepperoni pizza. The chicken salad croissant sandwich falls apart and the croissant was cold and hard from sitting in a refrigerator case. The soda fountain was broken the day we went and the canned soft drink selection pretty much began and ended with Sprite. And when you consider the rather surly staff, it's better to stick with the cantina.
The other weak spot is a new display called Ocean Commotion. Visitors walk through a fog screen into what the aquarium's Web site calls "a gallery celebrating the amazing energy of our oceans." But nothing in the gallery itself really explains what's going on in this interactive exhibit, or why you're being asked to vote in a cartoon election where characters such as Ninja the Mantis Shrimp and Percula the Clownfish vie for something called the Golden Gill Award.
Besides, if you're going to have a clown fish, shouldn't he be named Nemo?
Craig Pittman covers environmental issues and can be reached at (727) 893-8530 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Sherry Robinson writes about parenting issues and can be reached at (727) 893-8305 or email@example.com.