Recently, I took I-95 north to go down under. After more than three years of construction, the new "Australia: Wild Extremes" permanent exhibit at the Baltimore Aquarium is open, and the crowds have been many people thick. Buying advance timed tickets is a must; we went right at opening time on a weekend, and the crowds were more manageable. (Aquarium tickets are pricey at $22, but through Feb. 24, you can enter for $7.50 between 5-8 p.m. on Fridays and stay til 10.)
The pyramidal, glass-encased atrium that houses "Australia" attracts the eye from all around the harbor. My 11-year-old cousin and I went on a sharply cold day, and we headed straight for that three-story terrarium so we could warm up as soon as we got inside. But if we'd stopped to watch the short video (produced by sponsor Animal Planet) first, I think we'd have appreciated the experience more. With stomach-lurching Imax-style zooms, the video locates the habitat in a red rock river gorge in the Northern Territory and emphasizes the "extreme" climate there -- first it floods, and then the land bakes in the sun and dries out so much that wildfires are common. We're to be impressed that the flora and fauna have adapted to these severe conditions, but neither the video nor the exhibit clearly explained how they survive the water surplus and shortage.
No matter -- there's plenty to gape at anyway, starting with the 35-foot indoor waterfall that tempts visitors entering the building. Each aquarium tank is as glamorous as a Steuben glass vase, with a thick rounded lip and open top ending just overhead; the design tricks you into believing you could reach up and dip your hand in the water. The tank begins at the floor, so even toddlers can can look straight into the eyes of the creatures inside.
The snake-necked turtle was one of our favorite specimens, a reptile that looks like a science project gone awry, for his serpentine neck could stretch to be nearly as long as his shell. Kids snicker over the pig-nosed turtle, who appears to have two muscle car exhaust pipes jammed into his abbreviated face, and they dig the idea of free-range lizards, who can roam like birds from section to section. We couldn't spot the frilled dragon -- a lizard with an Elizabethan collar of a neck -- but we did press our noses up to the glass to see the "water monitor," a large forked-tongue swimming lizard related to the Komodo dragon.
The new building for the exhibit means several other improvements at the aquarium, including a new cafeteria, a bigger stroller check and more restrooms. Despite the hype and its engineering challenge, the Australia habitat doesn't take long to tour. But it's a good reason to return to the aquarium and remind yourself of its other highlights: sharks and rays, dolphin shows, the rain forest, and my favorite resident, Calypso, the three-flippered sea turtle.
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