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Florida Aquarium tours: Play with penguins, feed the sharks

FLORIDA AQUARIUM 701 Channelside Drive, Tampa

PENGUIN PALS

Tour: Penguins, Backstage Pass

What you get: If Hollywood has you convinced that all penguins come from the South Pole and love the cold, then check out the aquarium's eight African black-footed penguins: Sandy, Sunny, Cliff, Rocky, Pebbles, Shelly, Windy and Reef. Tours let guests touch the extremely social animals and watch them swim, splash and play in their kiddie pool. You get to watch them swallow fish whole and can peek inside their mouths, which have no teeth but a tongue with spikes to prevent slippery fish from sliding out.

Did you know? Only 60,000 to 70,000 of these penguins exist in the wild, and the breeding of them in captivity is strictly regulated. In early to mid summer, the penguins fatten up like bowling balls and molt. During those two weeks, the penguins do not eat and are antisocial, because they would be vulnerable to predators if in the wild. The aquarium suspends tours and the penguin promenades through the main exhibit area until the birds' feathers grow back.

Wow moments: The penguins are incredibly soft, and it's hard to believe they are covered in feathers, not fur. If you think it's cute watching a cat play with a toy, check out a penguin batting around a toothbrush.

Poop alert! Penguins poop every 15 to 20 minutes and can shoot it up to 4 feet, so it's not a bad idea to wear closed-toe shoes and clothes you don't mind getting wet or dirty.

Is it worth it? Absolutely. The tours actually help the penguins stay happy and well-adjusted, the aquarium says. They live in huge groups in the wild and love visitors' interaction.

Susan Thurston, Times staff writer

IT TAKES (FISH) GUTS

Tour: Shark Feeding

What you get: Learn the good, bad and gross of being a shark biologist by doing the work yourself. This behind-the-tanks tour lets visitors prepare the food and feed it to the aquarium's largest shark during their thrice-weekly feedings.

Gross! The tour starts in the commissary, where you strap on a plastic apron and gloves. The job? Inserting multivitamin pills into the innards of raw fish — not for anyone squeamish about fish guts. Don't forget to wipe the fish blood off the counter. From there, you head to the roof to feed the sharks (nurse, sand bar, zebra, blacktip and whitetip), as well as the huge sea turtle and stingray that live in the 93,000-gallon tank.

Did you know? Feeding sharks large pieces of fish with a metal pole takes patience and precision. You can't just throw in a bucket of chum and let them go at it. Sharks have to be in the right mood to feed.

Wow moments: The feeling of a 200-pound shark eating a fish off your grabber pole is pretty amazing. You can actually feel a little suction as the shark inhales the food in one bite. It's also exciting to see a shark come above the water, flashing its full set of teeth to grab the fish. Reminds you of the movie Jaws.

Tip: Wear sneakers or a closed-toe shoe with no heel. It can get hot outside by the tank, so lightweight, comfortable clothing is also recommended.

Is it worth it? There's a world of difference between seeing sharks from behind thick glass and feeding them at dinner time. Whether you're looking to learn more about these much-maligned creatures or just wanting an adrenaline rush, these tours are a sure bet.

Susan Thurston, Times staff writer

Editor's note: This article has been changed to reflect this correction: Duke Geek, pictured with penguins in today's Weekend, is 88. An incorrect age appeared in the section, which is printed in advance.

if you go

Florida Aquarium

Penguin, Backstage Pass: The 30-minute tours are at 11 a.m., 1 p.m. and 2:15 p.m. daily. Maximum eight people. $25 for nonmembers and $20 for members, plus aquarium admission ($19.95 for adults, $14.95 for kids under 12). flaquarium.org; (813) 273-4015.

Shark Feeding: Tours are at 1:30 p.m. Sundays and 3 p.m. Tuesdays and last up to two hours. Participants must be at least 12 years of age, and reservations are required. Maximum six people. $65 for nonmembers ($50 through Sunday for Shark Week) and $50 for members and includes admission to the aquarium and an "I fed the sharks'' apron. flaquarium.org; (813) 273-4015.

Florida Aquarium tours: Play with penguins, feed the sharks 08/04/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, August 4, 2010 5:05pm]

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