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A DELICATE BALANCING ACT

Standing at the pool, I slip my hand under the water and wait for a dolphin to swim near enough to touch. They tease by staying inches out of range. A pair, jumping in unison, lands with a mighty splash that soaks my clothes. I can't help laughing. The dolphins at Sea World seem to be grinning, too. "This is absolutely incredible!" says the dripping woman next to me.

She is a satisfied customer at this huge Central Florida attraction. I know how she feels. Dolphins delight me, too. Being close enough to look into their eyes is a thrill. For a lot of people, it's also a consciousness-raising experience. They go on to develop an interest in environmental issues that affect marine animals.

Yet it's easy to feel guilt for all the pleasure Sea World provides.

For one thing, a half-dozen dolphins seem too many for the 100-foot pool here. And there must be 50 of us crowding around laughing and pointing and hoping to touch them. The dolphins may look as though they're smiling, but their behavior strikes me as frantic. They sprint around the pool again and again, stopping only long enough to jump and slap the water's surface with their tails.

"Please don't reach out to touch the dolphins," announces a young Sea World employee over the public address system. "If you're quiet and don't move they may come close enough to be touched. But please don't scrape them with your fingernails."

Sea World is a place that provokes conflicting emotions in thoughtful people who care about wildlife. It's a place where you can experience marine life at close quarters. You can touch a dolphin, if you're lucky, and pat a stingray. You can rub noses, through the glass, with an 18,000-pound killer whale. You can see live penguins in a display that is as good as you'll find anywhere. At shark encounter, you feel like you're swimming with them.

At the same time, there's a strong odor of roadside zoo-style exploitation and money-grubbing going on here. Adult admission is $27 (including tax) _ and the assault on your wallet is only beginning. A turkey sandwich will set you back $5.95 and a soft drink $1.25. A 48-page souvenir booklet costs $3. There's also opportunity to spend some real money: Inside the park, a woman sells "Dolphins Court" time-share apartments. Fortunately, an automatic teller machine is near the front entrance.

Seals don't wear funny hats and noses, but they might as well be dressed in clown suits. In the wild, they are wonderfully resourceful animals that catch their own meals, set up social structures and play an important role in the balance of nature. At Sea World, they have been trained to dance, more or less, to funky music, The Dinosaur, as human actors, dressed as cave dwellers, trying to stop "Mister Mean's polluting ways."

Ah, show business. And the audience seems to love every corny moment.

Entertaining and educating the public without exploiting the animals are the beach balls Sea World tries to juggle. It's a tough balancing act. The park, owned by the Busch Entertainment Corp., the Busch Gardens people, succeeds about as often as it fails.

Even the growing number of park critics will tell you how well Sea World does certain difficult things. The park hasn't taken a dolphin from the wild in more than a decade; its biologists are masters at captive breeding. Sea World's trainers and biologists are known throughout the science community as caring people.

Sea World offers special marine biology programs for teachers and for the hearing and speaking impaired. Sea World has also taken the lead in many whale, manatee and sea turtle rescues. More corporations should be such good environmental citizens.

Yet the goal of the business side of the park is to make money, and the way a park makes money is by attracting as many people as possible. Would tourists be satisfied with a straight marine zoological park? Thousands, no doubt, would. But Sea World, just minutes down the road from Walt Disney's attractions, obviously lacks confidence. So the park tends to try to spice things up.

Consider Shark Encounter: It's an exhibit that manages to be fun, informative _ yet exploitative.

Visitors see two short educational films before they step onto the conveyer belt that transports them through a glass tube inside the shark tank. Large lemon, bull, nurse, brown and sand tiger sharks cruise just above your head. It's an impressive diver's-eye-view.

Sharks are misunderstood creatures, you learn during the film, and not especially interested in biting off your legs. Then, as you move through the shark tank, you hear music from the film Jaws, and immediately think about giant sharks that bite bathers in half.

Leave shark encounter, and you encounter _ what else? _ one of the park's 14 gift shops. They're everywhere, and in one of them, shark products, of all things, are for sale. A tooth from a great white (of Jaws fame) goes for $125. A set of jaws from a huge tiger shark carries a $469 price tag.

Somebody killed those sharks so Sea World could sell jaws and teeth at an obscene profit. Do zoos sell elephant tusks?

But just when you're ready to complain to park management and leave in disgust you stumble into Penguin Encounter. It's Sea World's proudest moment. Five (of 17) penguin species cavort in a spectacular exhibit made to look like an iceberg in Antarctica. Behind the glass, it's 34 degrees and icy. King penguins stand ramrod straight on rocks and dive into gin-clear water where they resemble fish more than fowl. Educational displays, activated by touch, explain penguin natural history.

If Sea World did all displays in such manner, it would be a world-class marine park. Unfortunately, it squanders most opportunities. Worse, the park seems to terrorize some wildlife in the name of education and entertainment.

Sea World has several "hands on" exhibits. One of the most popular is Stingray Lagoon. Standing at a shallow pool, you can pet the passing bat, southern diamond and cow-nosed rays. It's safe: These rays no longer can sting. Their barbs have been removed. They'll grow back _ but again, it's disconcerting that somebody's job is catching these animals and pulling out their barbs so we can pet them.

A trip to Sea World is incomplete without seeing the killer whales, and late in the afternoon I head for 5,200-seat Shamu Stadium. Earlier, I was unable to enter a smaller arena for the Whale and Dolphin Show because every seat was taken. With time to kill, I was sentenced to cruising the gift shops, where I resisted buying Sea World golf balls (3 for $11) and a compact disc of Sea World whale-show music ($13.98).

Shamu Stadium's tank, which is 36 feet deep and filled with 5-million gallons of 50-degree water, is an engineering wonder where two killer whales are put through their paces. They jump completely out of the water, slide onto a wet platform and wave with their fins. They give their trainers a ride.

A woman from the audience, a tourist, is brought forward to touch a whale. A trainer asks her to tell the audience what a killer whale feels like. "Rubbery," she says _ and the whale spits water on her. The audience roars.

One of the great appeals of Sea World, strangely enough, is the ritual soaking by whale or dolphin. Being splashed by these strange and wonderful creatures is a form of contact, something like getting an autograph from a celebrity. The whale swims along the edge of the tank, turns on its side and uses pectoral fins to splash water over the first 14 rows.

"My dress is ruined," says a teen-ager, walking out after the show.

Looking at her glowing face, I have the feeling she's more delighted than agitated. But I'm not sure what to think about that.

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