- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 5, 2006

Sharks and alligators in a downtown federal building? No, it’s not a scene from a horror movie. It’s a scene from the basement of the U.S. Department of Commerce, home to more than 2,000 fish, reptiles and amphibians, all residents of the National Aquarium.

“Kids get very excited during the shark feedings,” says Tammy Ward, visitor service manager at the aquarium. Shark feedings — the sharks are served frozen fish — take place at 2 p.m. Monday, Wednesday and Saturday.

“We don’t have the biggest sharks and alligators, but kids don’t seem to care,” Ms. Ward says.

Among the sharks showcased at the aquarium are the horn shark, the swell shark and leopard shark. Most of these animals are up to 4 feet long, but the leopard shark can grow to be about 9 feet. The alligators, too, are on the young, and therefore small, side.

“Since we’re pretty small, we can’t keep them when they grow too big,” Ms. Ward says about the growing predators. “We have to give them away to other aquariums and zoos.”

The alligator exhibit — which, unlike some tanks, is very well marked — tells visitors that this particular reptile is very important for its immediate ecosystem. For example, alligators dig “gator holes” that can be 26 feet wide and 11 feet deep. These holes retain water during the dry season, providing a watering hole for the animals in the area. The holes even can lead to a reduction in the mosquito population because the water often is home to schools of killifish, whose favorite food is mosquitoes.

Another predator visitors like to see is the piranha, Ms. Ward says, but if visitors are expecting bloodthirsty creatures with voracious appetites, they’ll be disappointed.

“We had to stop doing the piranha feedings,” Ms. Ward says. “They just weren’t very interested in the food.”

This course of events highlights one of the aquarium’s main focuses, namely to dispel myths, she says.

“Piranhas can be dangerous, but they really have a much worse reputation than they deserve,” she says.

Other popular tanks include one with “Nemo,” aka a clown fish, and “Dory,” also known as a blue tang. Another one has a giant Pacific octopus, which can grow to be about 40 pounds, and a third features a lion fish, the only venomous fish at the aquarium.

Some tanks lack exhibit displays, and others are either empty or in not-so-good order.

“You have to remember that some of the equipment is from the 1930s, when the aquarium opened,” Ms. Ward says.

The National Aquarium, which sees about 180,000 visitors annually, is the oldest continuously operated public aquarium in the country. In the 1980s, however, it was cut from the federal budget and had to begin operation as a nonprofit, Ms. Ward says. After many bare-bones years, she says, it has gone into a partnership with the National Aquarium in Baltimore and is expecting to make some major improvements to the exhibit space. By spring, some of the changes, including a focus on domestic fish, reptiles and amphibians, should be in place, Ms. Ward says.

Though the exhibits will change, she says the main mission will stay the same: to encourage people — particularly children — to be stewards of the environment.

One display case, close to the entrance, holds a heap of sand and a bunch of trash, including soda cans and cigarette butts.

“We want to make sure visitors, especially children, know the damage that trash left on the beach can cause,” Ms. Ward says. “Plastic bags, for example, look like jellyfish to turtles. So the turtles will swallow the plastic bag, thinking it’s jellyfish.”

Unlike a nutritious jellyfish meal, the not-so-nutritious plastic bag can get stuck and twisted in the turtle’s intestines, ultimately killing the turtle, she says.

The sand-trash display also gives statistics from the Intercostal Cleanup — a one-day annual event sponsored by the Ocean Conservancy — from a couple of years ago, when 450,000 volunteers helped clean 7.55 million pounds of trash off U.S. beaches.

“We think it’s very important — without being preachy about it — to encourage and empower kids, to help them understand that they can make a difference,” Ms. Ward says. “We talk about the importance of saving water and energy; what a difference it makes to have a compost [bin] in the back yard.”

When you go:

Location: The National Aquarium is located at 14th Street and Constitution Avenue Northwest in the basement of the U.S. Department of Commerce building.

Directions:The aquarium is one block north of the Mall and just northeast of the Washington Monument. The closest Metro stop is the Federal Triangle stop on the Blue and Orange lines.

Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily; closed Dec. 25.

Parking: Limited metered street parking is available.

Admission: $5 for adults, $4 for seniors and military personnel, $2 for children ages 2 to 10, children age 1 and younger pay no admission.

Information: 202/482-2826 or www.national aquarium.com.

Notes: The aquarium has several events planned for August. Among them are alligator feedings at 2 p.m. Friday afternoons and Shark Day, an all-day affair set for Saturday. Shark Day will feature displays of fossilized shark teeth, a fossil dig (a sandbox where children can dig for shark teeth and take home what they find), a shark feeding at 2 p.m. and a craft: gyotaku, fish printing on T-shirts. The craft costs $5 (T-shirt included); all other activities are included in general admission.

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