The deep blue Pacific under Plexiglas

Even if you've been on a whale watch it's hard to figure just how big this mammal actually is. Stand beneath a full-size model of a blue whale in the vast Great Hall at The Aquarium of the Pacific and you instantly appreciate your own puny size against the scale of the largest creature ever to inhabit our planet.

This sobering contrast is the first of many startling science lessons lurking in this state-of-the-art facility, which opened last June in a flood of media publicity.

Happily, much of the hoopla over the advances in aquarium technology and accessibility, as well as breadth of collection seems well deserved.

Wave motifs dominate this watery playland, from the 900,000 gallons of sea water filtered hourly through the 47 various exhibits, to the undulating profile of the building and curving floor layout of the exhibits.

Deciding which wave to catch after recovering from your whale encounter is a challenge. Each dark hallway beckons with its glowing Plexiglas tanks full of darting and sometimes dangerous ocean dwellers. Outdoor exhibits show off playful otters, seals, sea lions, and stingrays.

Go with the flow and take the three Pacific categories in order - Southern California and Baja, Northern Pacific. and Tropical Pacific.

First, however, you must get past the Predator Exhibit, a three-story high tank of "top-of-the-food-chain" ocean animals that inhabit Southern California waters - a favorite of the under-8 male contingent.

"Barracuda!" yelped a group of first-grade boys the afternoon we joined the throngs on their vacation pilgrimage. "Sharks!" they chorused as soon as they caught their breath.

While most of the other creatures on display are not as snappy as these fellows, they are decidedly more exotic and in several cases downright rare.

Take the leafy and weedy sea dragons. Related to sea horses, the males of these extraordinary little creatures which look for all the world like a shimmering piece of seaweed, carry their eggs to birth.

The moon jellyfish look as though they floated off an episode of the "X-Files" they are so other-worldly.

For sheer impact, nothing can beat the Plexiglas corridor next to the coral display. Curved overhead and underfoot, the tunnel provides the best Davy Jones view of any aquarium this family has ever visited.

In tanks without such spiffy innovations, scuba divers humanize the seascape by drifting among huge sharks and wrasses, feeding them as they go.

If the inner ocean becomes too gloomy, up top otters, sea lions, and seals cavort in the sun while stingrays flutter languidly around a shallow pool set up expressly to allow little fingers to pet these scary creatures as they glide past.

One surprise of the facility is also one of its unique contributions to the world of aquariums - nearly all the coral is fake, meticulously re-created by aquarium artists.

Long Beach is growing its own coral colony with a small display of live coral simply because to stock its vast exhibits with the real thing would have decimated actual wild coral reefs.

A single afternoon is not enough to fully absorb the more than 12,000 ocean animals here. The best approach may be built in - ride this wave as long as it lasts and hope the next one comes around soon.

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