A sea of curious visitors

Australian exhibit at aquarium draws 1,700 in first hours


Christine Velter got her two children excused from school, persuaded her husband to take the day off and drove an hour and a half from her home near Hershey, Pa., to be among the first to see the crocodiles, kookaburras and lizards of the new, expansive universe known as "Animal Planet Australia: Wild Extremes."

When the National Aquarium in Baltimore's $74.6 million addition opened to the public yesterday, about 1,700 people went through in the first hours, according to aquarium officials, about triple the usual attendance for similar days.

Velter's extended family was among them. In all, 12 made the trek from Pennsylvania, caravan-style, to take advantage of yesterday's special $7.50 admission fee. (Normally, it's $21.95 for adults and $14.95 for children.)

"I like the big fishes," said 8-year-old Grant Velter, as he stared appreciatively at a tank with large, placid barramundi. Meanwhile, his great-aunt, Phoebe Drake, kept tabs on another nephew, 3-year-old Max.

"All Max talked about on the way down here was whales and sharks. Now he's just fascinated by the crocodiles and turtles," she said.

Like other visitors, the Velters were also struck by the steamy warmth of the simulated river canyon. It was a balmy and moist -- thanks to misting machines -- and 83 degrees. Many visitors went through the exhibit oohing and aahing, clutching an ever-growing bundle of coats and scarves.

Bob and Janice Lowden of Pasadena had dressed appropriately. In 2001, they spent a vacation in Australia, backpacking in Kakadu National Park -- in the Northern Territory the exhibit represents. Yesterday, they couldn't say enough nice things about the flying parrots and finches, the lizards and fish, and the quality reproduction of the rocky landscape they remember.

"This is the exactly the kind of geology we saw when we were hiking to the waterfalls," Janice Lowden said.

Behind them, some visitors were enjoying their first taste of an aquarium.

"I love the way they're keeping the animals nice and clean and fresh," said 17-year-old Jaleesa Hopkins, who came with a group from her high school in Washington. "This is really good for people who don't get to see this."

"The way they've got this set up is real natural. It's a real nice place," said her friend Laurice Barber.

Earlier, at the exhibit's opening ceremony, a number of dignitaries -- including Australian Ambassador Dennis Richardson, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and Mayor Martin O'Malley -- gave toasts echoing those sentiments.

The event included such Aussie touches as ginger beer toasts, a quartet singing "Tie Me Kangaroo Down" and a boomerang expert who demonstrated tosses from the dais. A musician dressed as an Aborigine played the didgeridoo, a droning wind instrument. In addition, actors dressed as a sulphur-crested cockatoo, flying fox, frilled lizard and tree frog perched precariously on the overhead trusses.

The spectacle suggested it may be getting harder to make a big splash, even at a new exhibit. When 4-year-old Anjali Biswal of Palo Alto, Calif., stared into a tank, waving a glittery bracelet to attract a snake-necked turtle, it was the third time she'd had this sort of experience. According to her parents, Anjali's been to the shark reef at the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino in Las Vegas and to the aquarium in Monterey Bay, Calif.

"I've seen piranha," she said. But she was struck by the fact that some of the Australian fish were almost as big as she.

Some visitors, such as the Lowdens, went through the exhibit twice.

"This environment is a little lusher than we remember from our trip," Bob Lowden said. "But the waterfall is absolutely right. And the rock paintings are a dead ringer for the Aboriginal rock art you see everywhere."

His verdict?

"I think it's wonderful to raise public awareness of this part of the world and its unique wildlife," he said. "On the other hand, I guess I don't want lots more people to be going over there."


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