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THE Wilds OF San Diego

A 'Wild Arctic' copter trip at Sea World and African safari at Wild Animal Park are ready to open.

May 22, 1997|VALERIE J. NELSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

If you can't quite fit a research expedition to the Arctic or Africa into your family's vacation budget, consider taking a trip to the more geographically desirable San Diego, where two new exhibits officially opening Saturday are designed to virtually mirror the experience.

At Sea World, a rocky 4 1/2-minute simulated helicopter ride transports would-be researchers from San Diego to the "Wild Arctic," where scientists explore creatures at the North Pole from a base station built around a wrecked 150-year-old ship.

At San Diego Wild Animal Park, visitors step into the "Heart of Africa," an exhibit designed to duplicate a walking safari with a research island at its core.

"We want them to feel that they are there," says Bill Winhall, Sea World's assistant curator of mammals and team leader of the Wild Arctic.

To that end, the park has constructed a working research station that incorporates the habitats of the beluga whale and harbor seal, polar bear and walrus. A touch to the computer screen can make a remote camera zoom in on an animal, below or above water, or allow explorers to plan their own expeditions. Guests can don headsets to listen to the whales, for instance, or view their bird-like sounds on a sonogram readout.

The first Wild Arctic exhibit debuted last year at Sea World in Florida, winning an award for best attraction from the American Zoological Assn., says Jonna Rae Bartges, the park's director of public relations.

"It's such a complex, interesting environment," Winhall says of the attraction built to allow 1,800 people an hour to pass through. "There is something around every corner. When you get there, you feel this cool air and hear airport noises and researchers talking. It really feels like this is a chance to take a trip to the Arctic."

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At San Diego Wild Animal Park, trekkers arrive firmly on foot to the "Heart of Africa," designed in layers so guests won't be able to see the barriers between exhibits. "That's the fun aspect of it. The visitor won't know what's really kept in a certain area. . . . It all begins to blend," says Michael Mace, the park's curator of birds.

More than 260 animals, representing more than 30 species of birds and 11 species of mammals, can be found on the 30-acre site, which is half the size of many zoos in the country, he says.

Before entering the exhibit, safari-goers pick up field notebooks that guide them along a three-quarter-mile path that begins in a forest, where visitors will see such animals as the rare okapi (a relative of the giraffe) and wattled cranes, which range only in Africa.

From there, the path leads to a savanna and such creatures as the turkey-like kori bustards (the world's heaviest flying bird), bontebok antelope and cheetahs. A stream leads to a water hole with five islands that are home to flamingo, shoebill storks and Allen's swamp monkeys. Here, such large African mammals as the rhino and waterbuck are likely to be seen.

At a mock research station on one island, visitors can take part in such field activities as animal behavior documentation and radio telemetry tracking and feed the giraffes. Two animals, an aardvark and an Abyssinian ground hornbill, will be permanent island fixtures, and 10 others will be taken to the research station each day.

"As they walk through this area, there are free-ranging birds as well. We are immersing our visitor in this experience. It's not a static display. As you are walking through, there are other species in adjacent areas. You are going to be looking at cheetahs on a plateau. In the background, you are going to see antelope and rhinos, crowned cranes. You will get a feel for what a safari is like," Mace says.

BE THERE

Sea World is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily and until 7 p.m. weekends. Summer hours are 9 a.m. to 10 or 11 p.m. June 14 through Sept. 1. Tickets are $32.95 adults, $24.95 children 3-11, $29.65 seniors. Parking $5. Call (619) 226-3901.

The San Diego Wild Animal Park is open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily. Tickets are $18.95 adults, $11.95 children 3 to 11, $17.05 seniors. Parking $3. Call (619) 480-0100.

The San Diego Zoo's summer hours are from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. from June 26 through Sept. 1. Tickets are $15 adults, $6 children 3-11, $18.90 seniors. Call (619) 234-3153.

Combination tickets, good for one admission each to the Wild Animal Park and the San Diego Zoo, are $31.95 for adults and $18.35 for children; they must be used within five days of purchase and include upgraded admission.

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