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Jack Smith

Meeting the denizens of the world beneath the waves, and handling them with that special touch of youth

August 26, 1986|JACK SMITH

Having flown all the way to Monterey to see the Monterey Bay Aquarium, I thought it was time I saw our own--the Marine Museum at Cabrillo Beach, San Pedro.

I got off to a so-so start. A young woman at the parking lot kiosk said, "Are you a senior citizen?"

That question always depresses me. "Yes," I admitted.

"Go on in then," she said. "No charge."

Marilyn M. Marrs, a docent, had written inviting me to visit the museum and especially the touch tank. I had written about the touch tank in Monterey, reporting that my friend Morry Pynoos, president of the Los Angeles Children's Museum, had pulled up the sleeve of his blazer and stuck an arm in to touch the back of a bat ray.

"It's slimy," he said, and from his face I gathered that he had just given up the idea of installing a touch tank in the new Children's Museum.

I had also received a letter from Reita Hamilton, Camarillo, in what appeared to be a 10-year-old's scrawl, with the following complaint:

"Why would Morry Pynoos wear a blazer when he visited the Monterey Bay Aquarium? Why doesn't he know how to dress for a visit to the touch pool? Doesn't he know kids like me enjoy slime? I want a touch pool."

Well, I'm happy to say that Ms. Hamilton will find her touch pool at Cabrillo Beach.

As for Mr. Pynoos' dress, we were going to lunch that morning at the Pebble Beach Lodge, and Mr. Pynoos, being a gentlemen, never goes abroad without being properly attired.

The Marine Museum is not as large or dramatic as the Monterey Bay Aquarium, which has one huge tank that is open to the sky, and in which we saw a bird diving. (I swear.) But, like Monterey, it does a good job of showing the marine animals of the local sandy beaches, rocky shores, marshes and mud flats.

In one tank I saw anemones, limpets, mussels, periwinkles, urchins and starfish clinging to their rocky perches while waves gushed in periodically from a wave maker, covering them with churning foam.

A moray eel had a tank to himself. He was a mottled light purple beige and white. His mouth was agape and his eyes were staring. He looked dead, but I saw that he was breathing. I wouldn't have cared to touch him.

I had assumed that in Monterey every creature was hunting for some other creature to eat. Here, however, was a tank of non-predatory echinoderms. It was noted that red and purple sea urchins eat plant material (bless their souls), while several other creatures are scavengers, feeding only on dead organisms.

Many starfish, however, which look so pretty with their decorator colors and their five points, are quite predacious, devouring mussels, snails and barnacles, sea cucumbers, urchins, anemones and sand dollars.

About 20 children were waiting their turn for the touch pool, which is outdoors. I got in line. They appeared to be about 10 years old and were fairly well-behaved. It occurred to me that if children were born 6 and became adults at 13, life would be a breeze for parents.

We filed out as another group filed back in. A girl whose badge identified her as Pilar Wright was standing above the touch pool on a platform.

She addressed the children over a mike.

"All right, take three steps backward . Good. You probably know that all the animals in here will not bite you. OK? But we don't want you to hurt them ."

The rules were: Don't pick up the animals, and touch them only with one finger. There was a shark pool behind the touch pool. "Do not touch the sharks," she warned--unnecessarily, as far as I was concerned.

The children crowded up to the touch pool and began touching the starfish, anemones and whatnot. I went out to the end, where a girl in a red museum T-shirt was examining a starfish. Her name tag said she was Charity Mayes. I reached in the pool and put my finger in the middle of a sea anemone. It felt soft. I withdrew my hand and stood watching the anemone to see if it reacted.

The girl said, "You're not going to touch anything?"

"I just touched an anemone," I said defensively.

"Oh," she said.

"Are all those animals alive?" I asked.

A boy whose name tag said Mark Talluto answered: "Yes. But those bat stars are going. There's an epidemic. And they've been touched too much. They're exhausted."

I decided not to touch a bat star.

Back inside, I saw a girl named Nancy Aguilar reach into a tank with her left hand and take out a starfish to show two boys. The first and second fingers of her right hand were bandaged. I wondered if she had touched a shark.

In one large room, four benches stood under the suspended skeleton of a 28-foot gray whale. A woman was talking to a group of children who occupied the benches.

She asked them: "What's the difference between a dolphin and a porpoise?"

I hung around. It sounded like a good chance for me to find out, once and for all, what the difference is between a dolphin and a porpoise. The children volunteered several answers. The woman shook her head. None was correct.

"All right," she said, "Put it this way. There really isn't any difference between a dolphin and a porpoise. OK?"

You learn something every day.

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