Take your chum to the Dallas Aquarium at Fair Park.
The Dallas Aquarium at Fair Park may be one of the best entertainment values in the state. With more than 5,000 aquatic animals in its collection, the aquarium takes visitors on a tour of underwater worlds circling the globe. It is a fascinating journey filled with creatures that defy description for their beauty or ugliness. All for the incredibly low price of $3 for adults and $1.50 for children.
The piranha tank turns into a churning frenzy of teeth and fins when Lynn Ables, our guide, pours in a bucket of chopped fish. A little larger than the size of an average man's hand, the homely brown fish with frightening teeth make short work of the morsels. The crowd pressed close to the railing can only utter sounds of astonishment in the few seconds that it takes for the 35 to 40 fish in the tank to settle down again.
Before Ables moves behind the wall to feed the carnivorous animals, he explains a little about the red-bellied fish from the Amazon region of South America. Despite their reputations, the fish are relatively shy. Like sharks, they can smell blood in the water, but rarely pose a serious threat to humans.
From vicious to enormous, the aquarium's 10,500-gallon Amazon Flooded Forest Exhibit houses fish that are larger than some of the children staring with disbelief at the tank. Nine feet tall, the showcase provides a natural habitat setting for 500 fish representing 25 species found in the Amazon River.
The underwater world covers more of the earth than land, yet most of us know very little about the creatures that dwell below the surface. The staff of the Dallas Aquarium want the visitors' experience to be entertaining as well as educational, says Brian Potvin, aquarium staff supervisor. "What gets the staff excited about the fish is what we want them to share with the visitors," he says.
When not taking care of the fish, the staff spends its time preparing educational programs and doing research on the animals. The aquarium was one of the first institutions to do research on the walking bat fish. A very ugly, boomerang-shaped native of the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic coast, the animal actually walks along the bottom of the ocean. In captivity, the fish have been victims to parasites. The Dallas Aquarium has one that is more than nine years old, unheard-of for the species in captivity.
Almost as long as a football field and half as wide, with tanks lining nearly every wall, the aquarium's collection of fish includes the common and the unusual. A personal favorite of Potvin is the jellyfish tank or the "living lava lamp exhibit" as he calls it. The moon jellyfish almost seem to glow as they move up and down. "It's mesmerizing to sit and watch them," he says.
In the exhibit called "Deadly Flowers of the Seas," the colorful sea anemones look like plants growing out of the rocks. Actually the creatures are close relatives to the jellyfish. With the exhibit, the aquarium tries to show the relationship of the anemones and the small animals, such as shrimp and crabs, that live among the poisonous tentacles.
Also very venomous is the aquarium's cute lion fish. The fish looks like at one time it might have been a bird with a robe of sharp fins that could have been feathers. Its big puppy-like eyes make it popular in home aquariums, but that covering of spines can be deadly.
Next to the Lion Fish, the sea turtles look huge and indestructible. "We want visitors to see that it's not all doom and gloom," Potvin says. "We want them to see conservation efforts that are working." Thanks to organizations like the Dallas Aquarium, the sea turtles are making a comeback from the brink of extinction. The Kemp's ridley sea turtle in the exhibit is just visiting from Galveston. He was hatched with the help of humans and released on the Texas beach, but took a wrong turn back inland. His stay in Dallas will give him a little more time to grow before handlers try to set him free again.
Opened in 1936 as part of the Texas Centennial Celebration, the Dallas Aquarium became part of the Dallas Zoological Society in 1990. The staff currently has three major conservation projects under way. Since 1991, the aquarium staff has been researching the breeding habits of the endangered Central Texas salamanders taken from the Comal, San Marcos, and Barton springs. The breeding program is one of only three or four similar research projects and only the second to breed the Texas blind salamander, Potvin says.
The aquarium is one of only two facilities that is working with the threatened pupfish from West Texas and Northern Mexico. With serious natural habitat loss, the research is trying to maintain and protect the tiny guppy-like fish.
An exciting new avenue for the Dallas Aquarium is the work studying sea horses. In conjunction with the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago and the London Zoo, the Texas team is looking at natural environmental needs of the small fish.
From prehistoric-looking monsters to cuddly and colorful fish, The Dallas Aquarium at Fair Park offers a peek into the underwater world seven days a week, 9am-4:30pm. Feeding time for the piranhas and other fish or other animal programs are at 2:30pm every day except Monday. The shark tank will soon be closed for an indeterminate amount of time for renovations. The art deco building is at 1462 First Ave. at MLK Blvd., east of downtown. For general information about the aquarium, call 214/670-8443 or visit http://www.dallas-zoo.org.
Coming up ...
Mardi Gras! Galveston fills 13 days with a Texas-sized revelry hosting more than 50 events, nine colorful parades, elaborate balls and parties, and exciting events. Live entertainment in the Strand Historical District includes Robert Earl Keen, the Fabulous Thunderbirds, the Flatlanders, Little Feat, the Temptations, and others. Advance tickets are $5 cheaper than at the gate. 888/GAL-ISLE or http://www.mardigrasgalveston.com.