"There are some who can live without wild things and some who cannot." - Aldo Leopold

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

TWL Classics - Touristing through the Florida Aquarium

Originally published February 2009

The surest way to smoke out a Yankee at a zoo or aquarium - one who is not already sporting that fashionable maize and blue Wolverines sweatsuit - is to gaze into a snook tank and declare the fish here don’t get as big as the walleye back on Lake Huron, and see if you get any nods or other agreeing gestures. Or, maybe they’ll flush wild and spit out something incriminating like one dude did staring at an overgrown bullhead cruising amongst the bass and bluegill at the freshwater display – “look at the shark in there," he said with authority.

Why I’m obsessed with pointing out Northerners, I’ll never know.

To be fair, the three biggest rubes in the joint were hovering by the drake pintail, flashing photos to the point the bird’s gonna need a corneal transplant. But, we got some mighty fine pics of him, some woodies, some hoodies, and a beautiful ruddy drake. The ladies couldn’t believe how they got rigged up with such gumps. Duck season never stops, baby.

We’d come to the Florida Aquarium in Tampa for Valentine’s Day. The facility itself is not a large place. If you didn’t stop to photograph, or gawk cupped-hands-on-the-glass into the otter tank wondering where the sleeping weasels were, you could pile through in ten minutes or less. But you’d be cheating yourself of a fine experience.

We’ll start with the ducks. For the average duck hunter, your observation time of living, breathing, caring birds is quite limited, usually within the fleeting moments it takes to see them, miss three times, and watch them zip toward distant horizons. Unlike deer hunting where you can watch plenty of game pass without firing a shot, noting various habits and idiosyncrasies, all ducks go to Heaven. So the highlight for the hunters in the group was getting pickpocket close to the waterfowl as they swam underwater and slept and preened.

I’d say after that, the mangrove exhibit is pretty cool with its monster bull redfish and sheepshead larger than I’d previously laid eyes on. Sparing no expense, the staff also populated the tank with mullet and sail cats, which is about like tossing a couple donkeys in with the antelope at Busch Gardens. A few snook and magnum mangrove snapper peered from beneath the arching mangrove roots. The whole scene will get you cranked up for some Tampa Bay flats fishing.

Many other Florida “name” sportsfish were represented too: tarpon, permit, amberjack, yellowtail snapper, grouper of several flavors, black drum, marlin, barramundi – kidding, seeing if you were playing attention. The tropical reef fish added the color, and the sea dragon and sea horse display was especially remarkable, though I guess they have somewhat sissy eyes since flash photography was prohibited.

Really, the only disappointing leg of the tour was the shark display, which is usually the moneymaker at such attractions. For one, the species of shark included blacktip, whitetip, nurse, sandbar, and something called a “zebra shark," though it had spots and was about as tough looking as it sounds. I’m not asking for Jaws, but at least throw a sand tiger in for some teeth. The freshwater displays were as frightening and awe-inspiring – maybe that’s why that Yankee mistook the bullhead for a shark.

Two, we caught the “shark show," becoming passengers on a doomed voyage aboard the submersible “U.S.S. Tampa," which I thought to be a rather uninspired name. The acting, and I use that term in the loosest sense possible, was cringe-worthy, second hand embarrassment. Not that I could have done better, but still.

Now stay with me, my powers of wordsmithing aren’t strong enough to totally relate this experience to you, but I must try. The “captain” – and I hope I don’t get him fired telling this – guided us through our journey with as much enthusiasm as a guy who’d just spent Valentine’s Eve alone in a bathtub pounding eight dollar bottles of Shiraz. When his pre-recorded engineer warned him of engine trouble, the response clearly broke with maritime etiquette and protocol. “Yup” sounds near-mutinous.

After what seemed like an hour of watching, well, let’s just come out and say it, the lamest sharks of the ocean swim in circles, a yellow cage was lowered and two female divers entered. One wore a mask equipped with a microphone so she could speak to Capt. Excitement and his passengers about these denizens of the deep while the engineers repaired our engines, wink, clearly under the belief our sense of whimsy was still intact. Trying to breathe and talk into that contraption made it sound like she suffered from a severe sinus infection.

“This is the zebra shark, haaaaaaaacccccckkkkkkkk, native to Indo-Pacific waters, uggggggggghhhhhhhhhhh.”

And so on.

The other lady had no such apparatus but came equipped with a yellow and black striped stick, we were told, to traffic the leviathans away, just in case one lunged at her, more than likely to have its head petted.

So the first lady yammered on about exploring this infinite abyss while the other woman stared blankly into the brine, back turned towards us anxious passengers. A quick, heavily related side note, if I ever am in an actual wrecked submarine and my choice is to stay aboard with screaming children or brave sharks - any shark - I’m going for the swim.

Anyway, Talking Diver asked Mute Diver if she was ready to leave the cage. When there was no response, Talking Diver put her hand on Mute Diver at which point she played startled, unnerved no doubt that the mighty zebra shark may yank her out of the cage, gumming her to death with those sandpaper teeth. She hoisted and thrust that black and yellow pole as a Masai hunter would man a spear to fend off a charging giraffe. It was quite a performance.

I’m not sure if the good captain returned everyone to port safely and in time for a one o’clock tiki bar appointment; Carolyn found a convenient escape hatch and discovered, lo and behold, we were not actually underwater!

Unfortunately, we missed the penguin show. Penguins are funny. I’m told it is pretty good, although my reliable source tells me they poop every thirty seconds. Frankly though, if the penguins turned cannibal on one another, it’d still be adorable.

We made one last pass through the joint, visiting again with the ducks and actually catching the otters awake, being ottery. Through the freshwater exhibit, past the touch tanks and back out into the real world, ready for lunch and a drink, left to wonder how big those walleye really get.

(All snarky comments aside, if you are in the Channelside area of Tampa, swing by the aquarium; it truly is a neat place for a sportsman to visit and a fine date location for the significant other. Teachers get in free!)

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