An Aquatic Abode

Celebrating its 25th year, the New England Aquarium is home to 10,000 species and draws more visitors than some major-league ball teams

LIFE is a saltwater dream for Myrtle the turtle. At 50 years old and a full 900 lbs., she's the imposing matriarch of the ocean tank at Boston's New England Aquarium.

Like an empress, this giant green sea turtle has her favorite food - lettuce - hand-fed to her five times a day by a devoted group of divers, and more than 1 million admiring subjects greet her every year with exclamations of praise ranging from ``Gee Whiz!'' to ``Wicked!''

Among her courtiers are a swirling myriad of sharks, stingrays, and barracudas, along with a nearby colony of rock-hopper penguins and five trained sea lions who perform back flips in her honor. Myrtle couldn't be happier.

Neither could aquarium officials, who are preparing to celebrate the nonprofit organization's 25th birthday tomorrow, with a free outdoor fesitval. With 10,000 specimens and almost $2 million in annual donations, the New England Aquarium (NEAQ) is one of the largest in the United States, drawing more visitors each year than some major-league baseball teams.

But back to the ocean tank. First of all, the residents are all from the Bahamas. Aquarium spokeswoman Susan Knapp says that each year 10 or 12 NEAQ staffers cruise to the Caribbean with the full permission of the Bahamian government, all the requisite licenses, and a host of special nets to ``go collecting.''

Once captured, Ms. Knapp explains, the fish are placed in special tanks, shipped to Miami, and then flown to Boston where they are met at the airport by a special transport team.

When the fish arrive at the aquarium, they are placed in quarantine until they adjust to the filtered Boston Harbor water in the building's 187,000-gallon tank. After the fish acclimate and if they show no signs of tropical maladies, they are released into the general tank population.

Knapp says the animals choose their own corner of the fiberglass reef, form schools, and even reproduce in captivity. ``In all the tanks, there's a lot of natural behavior going on.''

Do the fish eat each other? Not usually, Knapp says. ``We make sure the sharks are never hungry.''

One of the most widely copied exhibits at NEAQ is the hands-on tide-pool exhibit where youngsters and the young at heart can roll up their sleeves and handle a host of harmless critters from starfish to horseshoe crabs.

At the tide pool and throughout the aquarium, blue-shirted volunteers hover, answering questions, and red-jacketed ushers help hundreds of school kids to their seats at the sea-lion show.

When they're not attending to visitors, the 176 full-time NEAQ employees, many of them wearing wet suits and toting waterproof clipboards, dive into the tanks with bags of fish food or climb the slippery fiberglass rocks in the pool to serve herring and smelt to the black-footed penguins.

As they feed each critter, aquarium staffers check off their names and numbers on wax-paper forms.

OF all the beasts at the aquarium, the sea lions seem to receive the most attention, from both handlers and visitors. These 900-plus-lb. marine mammals, some from California, perform a 20-minute series of tricks, like balancing a ball, standing on one flipper, and kissing members of the audience in the 288-seat Sea Theater.

Trainer Kim Harris says that a new sea lion takes about a year to train. ``We use a program of positive reinforcement,'' she says. ``We break behavior down to a series of steps and reward them when they do something right.'' Ms. Harris explains that some sea lions mimic whatever the trainers do. ``If we hop, they hop. If we roar, they roar. It's interesting to see how they interpret things.''

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