Age of Aquarium
In hard times, does a revamped waterfront attraction offer hope for Camden, N.J.?

By Amy Brecount White
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Not a good week for Camden, N.J., which was dubbed the most dangerous crime city in the nation for a second year in a row. But if there's a bright spot in Camden, it's down at the docks, where a revitalization of the Delaware River waterfront just across from the Philadelphia skyline has been underway for several years. Slowly, a growing list of attractions is drawing tourists across the bridge from Philly's Penn's Landing.

You can board the permanently anchored battleship USS New Jersey for a tour, take a spin in its interactive Seahawkflight simulator and even spend the night on board. Nearby, the Tweeter Center offers live music in an outdoor amphitheater when it's warm and in a smaller indoor venue when it's not. You can root for the minor league Camden Riversharks at the state-of-the-art Campbell's Field, in the shadow of the Ben Franklin Bridge.

But my 6-year-old daughter and I were drawn to Camden, along with a mom-daughter pair of friends, by the riverfront's newest all-weather lure: Adventure Aquarium, which opened in May.

Its predecessor on this spot, the New Jersey State Aquarium, was a nonprofit organization dedicated primarily to educating its visitors. After a $53 million renovation and expansion by a for-profit corporation, the new aquarium places a savvy emphasis on entertainment. From the moment you step onto the blue carpet with its undulating bubble pattern, the museum targets all of your senses -- with varying degrees of success. The first exhibit, Irazu Falls, has a two-story waterfall that nicely mimics a rain forest river . . . except for the loud, thumping music that was piped in. That was a little too Hollywood for me.

But the variety of creatures soon lured us in: swimming terrapins, hustling fiddler crabs and tiny horseshoe crabs. Taped sea gull cries were more to my liking in Nature's Nursery, an exhibit on the importance of mangroves. Tangled faux branches twisted over our heads as we read up on the mangrove ecology and other aquatic subjects. Did you know that spiny lobsters line up in groups of up to 50 and march single-file across the ocean's bottom to migrate to warmer waters each year?

We also liked the beauty of the faux habitats. Most of the coral in the tanks is fabricated, but the textures, colors and variety formed a lovely setting for the fishes.

"Our goal is to create immersive experiences," said Greg Charbeneau, executive director of the aquarium, in a phone interview. To that end, the museum has scheduled many hours of interactive programs every day -- from seal shows to penguin feedings. The Swim With the Sharks program allows visitors with a sense of daring and $115 to don wet suits and snorkels and swim along the top of the tank in a protective "shark trench" within inches of the toothy inhabitants. We passed on that one.

Less interactive exhibits are scattered throughout the aquarium. Younger kids can pretend to be sea turtles hiding in the grassy Sargasso Sea or stick their heads through creature cutouts for a photo op. They can also touch a starfish, whelk, or -- best of all -- surprisingly smooth dogfish sharks.

In several galleries, flat screens play "Animal Planet"-like shorts to appeal to the television generations. The fast-paced movie of sea turtles, dolphins, etc., on screens suspended above the large Ocean Realm amphitheater was fine. But isn't it enough to simply admire the beauty of two rays gently flapping in unison or the silvery slipperiness of bluefin tuna gliding across the 760,000-gallon tank? Again, the accompanying music was overly dramatic -- pushing the senses toward overload.

In the Creature Lab section, however, the use of television seemed brilliant. You peer through the glass and see a live animal, then stand back and watch it do its thing in the wild in a brief, action-packed clip. "The Other Jaws" showed piranhas devouring a baby stork (and successively larger animals).

Occasionally, we would spy a fish and be unable to find a sign telling us its type, which was disappointing. A particularly brilliant column of colorful fish -- pinks, oranges, yellows and blues -- had no identification that we could locate. However, to the aquarium's credit, these amazing fish were displayed in a round glass column so more people could admire their beauty simultaneously.

The enormous West African River Experience stars two hippos, Button and Genny. Their abode is an airy room designed to resemble an African river and its banks, with 20 native species of birds, fish, crocodiles and porcupines. We were drawn immediately to the hippos' underwater home enclosed in glass. One of them turned and sauntered toward us, submerged eyes wide open. It seemed to move through the water in slo-mo. Its huge face was mere inches away from us as it climbed onto an underwater rock.

My absolute favorite exhibits were in the Jules Verne Gallery, where exotic creatures are housed in tanks behind portholes. The lights are low, so that the glow of a column filled with rippling, bluish jellyfish is irresistibly calming. In another tank, I couldn't take my eyes off the sea dragons. Resembling sea horses, they looked like miniature gliding dragons; one even had tiny purplish scales. This was one exhibit I wished they had made in the round, so that I didn't have to keep stepping aside to let others see.

On the other side of the Verne gallery, you can peer into the shark realm, but that's old hat compared to what's waiting around the corner: the ultra-cool shark tunnel. We were suddenly encased in clear acrylic that held back 20 sharks, 550,000 gallons of water and 850 other aquatic animals. Other than not being wet, we were swimming with the sharks as much as I'd ever care to.

Like amusement parks everywhere, Adventure Aquarium has added the sort of booby-trapped theater in which you don 3-D glasses and get jolted by real-time physical effects. The short film about a deep-sea dive features water misting, bubbles tickling and your chair jerking erratically. Unlike some 3-D films I've seen, I never really felt as if I were underwater. The jerking took me out of the experience rather than submersing me in it. My preteen boys would have pronounced it "awesome," but it was a little much for my daughter.

Outdoors, we find the 21 African penguins, another animal I can never get enough of. Nearby, the crowded seal show simulated a search expedition. A few tricks, such as some of the seven seals "kissing" one another, were impressive, but the show was a little cheesy compared with the National Zoo's more educational take.

All in all, we stayed at the aquarium for an easy 4 1/2 hours, including lunch. Of course, you can't exit without passing near the X-tra large gift shop full of aquatic toys and doodads. But in this competitive world, I guess a fish has got to sell itself.

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