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Dept. of Fish and Games

Children can get their hands wet at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, where the new interactive Splash Zone hooks visitors ages 9 and under

July 23, 2000|MARLA CONE | TIMES STAFF WRITER; Marla Cone is an environmental reporter for The Times

For my family, the ocean is a unifying force, drawing each of us for different reasons. My husband, a surfer, sees the ocean and checks out the waves. I study the indelible impact of its pollution as part of my job. And when my son looks out on that vast blue expanse, he is preoccupied with one question:

"What's in there?"

At 2 1/2 years old, Christopher is fascinated with anything that swims, floats or sits in ocean waters, from sea slugs to blue whales. So when we heard that the Monterey Bay Aquarium was opening a gallery for young children, we knew we had to check it out. The trip, a Saturday-through-Monday visit a couple of months ago, also offered us the chance to explore Monterey Bay, the nation's largest marine sanctuary.

Our first challenge was finding a charming place to stay that would accept a toddler. My husband, Dan, and I always have preferred country inns, and we weren't about to start staying in dull motel rooms just because we had a child. When I called an inn in Carmel we visited before we were married, I was told the innkeeper welcomed only children over 12. "See you in 10 years," I mumbled sadly.

Then I decided to surf the Internet. I finally found a place in Pacific Grove that seemed to have the combination we wanted: The Inn at 213 Seventeen Mile Drive.

We arrived on a Saturday, and the place turned out to be perfect, a restored 1920s Craftsman home with 14 rooms. When we walked into the wood-paneled sitting room, classical music was playing and a fire burned on the hearth. The afternoon hors d'oeuvres and wine were awaiting guests.

The room we reserved, the Curlew at $180 (plus tax) a night, is as big as an apartment and includes a small kitchen and wood deck. The koi pond outside immediately won over my son.

The breakfast, included in the rate, was a hearty and delicious buffet. One day it included a special version of French toast that was so moist it tasted like bread pudding; a mix of sausage and potatoes; and plenty of fresh fruit, yogurt and cereal. Nobody there seemed to mind a toddler sitting at the fine wood table, picking up pineapple from his plate with his fingers.

After the seven-hour drive from L.A., we were ready to get out and explore, so we naturally headed to the beach, a rocky cove just a short walk from the inn. Christopher poked around, picking up shells for our collection back home. Then we headed to Carmel for some window-shopping and a dinner of fish and chips at the Village Pub.

We awoke on Sunday to drizzly skies, so we decided to make it our day for the aquarium. First, though, we stopped at Pacific Grove's small Museum of Natural History. There, children can push buttons to hear the songs of orcas and sperm whales, and slide open drawers full of cases holding butterflies, bugs and rocks.

We arrived at the aquarium, a five-minute drive from our inn, around noon. Monterey has one of the best aquariums in the world, but I was still amazed by the quality of Splash Zone, the children's wing that opened in April. It's as if the designers had stepped into the mind of a child. As you walk in, a wave of calypso music sweeps over you and you're drawn to vivid displays of tropical reefs and tanks of bubbling water.

Christopher has been visiting aquariums since he was 6 months old, but finally here was one built with his age in mind. The gallery is designed for children from infancy to 9 years old. The young visitors are learning about the ocean, but they don't know it; they think they are just playing.

Everything is at eye level for toddlers, and instead of simply gazing out at fish tanks and signs, they can touch things; delightful hands-on exhibits let them discover for themselves how the ocean functions as an ecosystem. The displays let them crawl, climb, slide and splash. Thirty exhibits in Splash Zone re-create two habitats: tropical coral reefs and rocky shorelines like Monterey Bay.

One of our favorite displays was the "coral crawl," a tunnel-like reef replica into which children crawl--with or without their parents. Inside, they peer into windows displaying colorful sea horses, cardinalfish, harlequin shrimp and moray eels.

In the coral reef play area, the children don bright costumes, dressing up as whales, crabs and clown fish. They can pull stuffed moray eels out of the wall to see how long they grow to be, and match fish with the foods they eat. Infants are welcome, too, with a soft foam "baby pond" and water bed to crawl on.

Although most modern aquariums have hands-on exhibits, the tanks in Splash Zone are better, specially designed for young children. An aquarium staffer told Christopher to hold his hand underwater, and she gently put a hermit crab in it. He watched it crawl across his hand, carrying its shell. The staff seems to know exactly how to talk to young children and fill them with curiosity and excitement about even the tiniest ocean creatures.

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