- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 23, 2002

Piranhas. Alligators. Sharks. Crabs. Snails. Some would say creatures of this sort roam freely through the corridors of power in Washington leading the country, struggling for control or just exercising obfuscation. But they also can be found blinking, gliding, snapping and swirling through the tanks of our own National Aquarium.

Tucked neatly into the basement of the Department of Commerce building, the aquarium is a quick detour off the beaten path with family-friendly admission prices.

It was built in 1931 to exhibit the subjects of government-sponsored fisheries research. The research aspect eventually dropped off, but the institution remained as a public attraction that has lured millions of visitors over the years. The cool underground site is split into saltwater and freshwater sections and is home to nearly 80 exhibits containing 200 to 250 species. The space is small and, well, cute.

Other aquariums are big, "but we are intimate," says Executive Director Bill Simpkins. Other aquariums have larger displays, "but I think we have a better variety of animals," he continues. "The biggest thing that sets us apart is that we are the oldest public aquarium in the nation, so we do have some historical significance of who we are and why we're here."

"It's a wonderful facility a terrific family event," says spokesman Craig Roberts. "It's a different kind of an institution. The national monuments are to children a monumental bore. Instead, they can come here it's interactive."

Mr. Roberts might be talking about the touch pools that await visitors after they descend the stairs into the facility. The small, low pools are home to horseshoe and hermit crabs, snails, knobbed whelks and conches, and the staff encourages inquiring minds and inquisitive fingers.

Visitors might next attempt to understand an alligator. The aquarium has four of these reptiles in its American alligator exhibit, each about 4 feet long. The animals lie motionless, partially submerged, eyes unblinking all except one animal, which slowly glides toward the glass as visitors approach.

"This one appears to be very curious," Mr. Roberts says. "He'll come up to the side."

"He's probably watching the people as they're watching him," Mr. Simpkins adds.

It's certainly hard to say for sure.

Visitors can watch as the alligators are fed every Friday at 2 p.m. Their meal the animals' metabolism is so slow, they're fed once a week consists of frozen rats and quail, with a few crickets thrown in for a snack.

The shark exhibit holds an enormous nurse shark, which rests on the bottom of the large tank. Nearby, in the Chesapeake Bay exhibit, an exquisitely camouflaged flounder flaps around. Strangely, both of its eyes are on the same side of its head.

A birth defect? No. Mr. Simpkins explains: "When they start out in life, they swim upright like any fish. When they mature, they will start swimming flat. The eye that's facing the bottom migrates to the top side."

Children get excited over everything in the aquarium, Mr. Roberts says, but adult visitors especially enjoy the South American rivers exhibit, which contains those man-eating fish, the piranhas.

Actually, Mr. Simpkins says, the fish get a bad rap.

"These animals are schoolers and will band together to eat things, but they're no more vicious than any other animal eating its food," he says. "We spend a lot of our time trying to tell people the truth."

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