Golden Gate Park - a cultural picnic

`WE'VE got a lot of Lucasfilm folks working with us on this. [Scientific] accuracy is more interesting than `Star Wars,''' says Brian Gibeson, a marine mammal specialist, about a new exhibit called ``Wild California'' here in Golden Gate Park. It's a project that involves respected scientists, and artists from the company that made the popular trio of ``Star Wars'' science-fiction movies.

The park, situated on the western side, does for this famous city what Central Park does for Manhattan. Its more than 1,000 acres are filled with the tangy scent of eucalyptus trees - and several surprises.

The recently completed ``Wild California'' hall at the California Academy of Sciences is one of them.

Entering the white academy building, which blends modern and neo-classic architecture, the museumgoer is greeted by Quetzalcoatlus, a furry dinosaur replica with a 28-foot wingspan, in midair swoop. It's definitely wild-looking, and part of a growing collection of ancient reptile fossils and replicas. But the star attraction is nearby in Meyer Hall.

Mr. Gibeson, the scientific adviser who coordinated the efforts of the artists and scientists, points to the deep aqua/blue display called ``Sea Meadow.'' ``This is a 200-times enlargement of a couple of ounces of seawater from the Farallon Islands area,'' he explains.

Ghostly white creatures float in the intriguing picture-window-size diorama. The roundish shapes that resemble alien spacecraft, with spikes jutting from the top and sides, are baby crabs. The transparent cocoons are infant anchovies.

According to Gibeson, this extreme close-up view of sea life hasn't been presented before in a museum setting.

The three-dimensional images were made with the help of a scanning electron microscope, capable of magnifying up to 60,000 times. ``It's a great scientific tool,'' says Gibeson.

There's another super-enlarged exhibit in this hall called ``Beach Wrack.'' Gibeson says that making ``one blade of [seaweed] that's 24 feet long and ... translucent at the same time'' for this exhibit was one of the many feats the scientists and artists accomplished together.

Listening to sea elephants

Moving down the hall, a visitor discovers a life-size sculpture of sea elephants - two males, one female, and a baby - accompanied by the spectrum of sounds they make in their habitat.

The creatures resemble those found on the Farallon Islands, situated 26 miles off San Francisco. These islands are off limits to most human beings, because ``walking across ... the main island, [a person] could end up killing 20,000 birds during the peak of the breeding season - just by disturbing them,'' Gibeson says. The loud vocalizing of the sea elephants and the squawking of sea gulls give the flavor of a scene that can usually be observed only from a whale-watching boat.

A pond and a mud flat

Included in this exhibit are six restored land dioramas dating back to 1916, when this room was known as the academy's North American Hall.

There's also a 14,000-gallon aquarium and good old Monarch, the last grizzly bear (now stuffed) found in California. There are also educational videos, a tidal pond, and a mud-flat exhibit.

Other attractions in the academy buildings include the Steinhart Aquarium and Morrison Planetarium. The aquarium not only abounds with fish and reptiles, but has a large living coral reef, which has been on display in a 6,000-gallon tank since last May.

``Atmospheres,'' a show comparing the gases surrounding each of the planets in our solar system, will continue in the planetarium through Nov. 27.

The California Academy of Sciences is one of a cluster of structures in this section of the park. The rest of the acreage is devoted mainly to plant life - right where only sand dunes existed many years ago.

John McLaren, the park superintendent from 1887 to 1943, was responsible for most of the transformation from sand to an oasis of greenery.

Opposite the academy, across the outdoor Music Concourse (where a band plays every Sunday at 1 p.m., weather permitting), stand the Asian Art Museum and the M.H. de Young Memorial Museum. In an exhibition continuing through Jan. 8, the de Young is presenting 19th- and early 20th-century American works painted from live models.

The park also contains a Japanese Tea Garden, one of the remnants of the California Midwinter International Exposition of 1894. March and April are the best months to visit if you want to see the garden's cherry blossoms in full array.

Another delight here is the Conservatory of Flowers, which displays tropical blooms and other vegetation in a glass Victorian fairy-tale palace.

Arboretum and gardens

Plant lovers will also want to explore the Strybing Arboretum and Botanical Gardens, which houses a variety of plants well suited to the city's foggy summer days.

Still other attractions include windmills, a golf course, two stadiums, several small lakes, and even bison - but don't worry; they're penned.

On Sundays, a major road through the park is reserved exclusively for bicyclists, roller-skaters, and strollers.

Visitors to ``the city by the Bay'' won't want to miss Golden Gate Park's unusual charms. In warm weather, it's fun to plan a picnic on a grassy patch surrounded by lush gardens and wonderful fragrant scents.

Practical information

``Wild California,'' other California Academy of Sciences exhibits, and the aquarium are open daily from 10 until 5. Regular admission is $4; seniors and students pay half price.

The de Young and Asian art museums are open Wednesday through Sunday from 10 to 5. The admissions are $4 for adults and $2 for seniors; people under 18 are admitted free.

For a booklet with more information about the park and the city in general, send $1 to the San Francisco Convention and Visitors Bureau, PO Box 6977, Dept. GP, San Francisco, CA 94101.

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