Virginia Beach Aquarium opens 'Restless Planet' exhibit

Under the Sea: The exhibit includes a tunnel for viewing aquatic wildlife.
Under the Sea: The exhibit includes a tunnel for viewing aquatic wildlife. (Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center)
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By Becky Krystal
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 23, 2009

It was a fleeting existential crisis of sorts, as I popped my head into the clear dome of the Komodo dragon habitat at the Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center. Who was the one on exhibit here: Ki Ki the dragon or me?

I'd certainly made enough of a scene, crawling into the approximately two-foot-tall passage that led to the viewing area and then crawling out, rubbing the newly sore spot on my head. (The center's Web site describes it as an interactive experience for "young guests." Funny, that.) When a couple about my age entered the dome a few minutes later, I began to comprehend how absurd I, too, had probably looked to everyone else -- and the dragon.

It wasn't the first time that afternoon that I had been overcome by curiosity in the recently opened "Restless Planet" exhibit at the Virginia Beach facility. At various points, I found myself examining fossils under a magnifying glass, playing with touch-screen maps and pumping a lever to set off a volcano model that spewed beads instead of lava. And that was only a small selection of the interactive portions of the exhibit. There are three dozen such hands-on activities throughout the 12,000-square-foot area.

That's not mentioning all the creatures contained therein, including the exhibit's most impressive feature, a more-than-100,000-gallon tank that allows visitors to walk through a tunnel surrounded by aquatic wildlife.

"Restless Planet," a $25 million project in the works for a decade, debuted in late November, and its four habitats -- Indonesian volcanic island, Malaysian peat swamp, Red Sea and coastal desert/Mediterranean Sea -- are modeled on contemporary environments that may also have existed in prehistoric Virginia.

First up was the peat swamp, where I was transfixed by one of the aquarium's rare Tomistoma crocodiles. The female was lying at the bottom of the tank with her mouth wide open. I asked staffer Alexis Rabon why that was.

She's just waiting for something to swim in there, Rabon replied. Not to worry, though, because the croc is sufficiently fed about once a week with rodents. Fair enough.

Next was something rather cuddlier: sea horses. The tiny creatures in the coastal desert and Mediterranean Sea portion of the exhibit drew a crowd, especially as people started watching how they anchored themselves by wrapping their tails around the underwater greenery. A close second on the cuteness scale was the hedgehog.

The impressive main aquarium in the Red Sea habitat also attracted its share of onlookers. Surrounded by glass, the space is lined with benches that invite you to stay for a while as eagle rays and scores of technicolor fish soar overhead. There I met Christy and Joe Weidenbenner, whose tots, Aaron, 3, and Joshua, 18 months, gleefully ran up and down the 40-foot tunnel looking at the fish.

The boys were doing "a lot of laughing," their mom said. She liked how close they could get to the animals.

One habitat over, in the Indonesian volcanic island exhibit, Jessica Steadman stood by as her sons, Jacob, 3, and J.P., 5, watched the Komodo dragons. The family has an aquarium membership, and Steadman said that they tend to come a lot in the winter. This was their first time seeing "Restless Planet."

"Look at his big tail!" exclaimed J.P., who provided the play-by-play on the dragons with all the zeal of an Animal Planet narrator. "He's digging!"

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