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Virginia Beach Aquarium opens 'Restless Planet' exhibit

By Becky Krystal
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 23, 2009; C03

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!"

Suzanne Yatsko works in admissions at the aquarium but came in on her day off to check out the exhibits. She, too, had paused in front of the Komodo dragons, seconding my observation that "Restless Planet" seemed to be going over big with children such as J.P.

"It's really neat to hear," Yatsko said. "They're like sponges."

Oh, sponges. Wish I'd had a few on hand when I walked out of the aquarium into a cold, dreary rain.

I made my way down Pacific Avenue, one of Virginia Beach's main drags, and arrived at the Beach Spa Bed & Breakfast, where owner Danny Santos informed me that I would be the only guest that evening. The converted 1937 beach cottage had just emptied out after a busy spell, and Santos's wife, Debbie, told me the next morning that she didn't mind the lull.

After a satisfactory amount of time flopped on my bed, I rallied for dinner at Ammos, a Greek restaurant. The dining room was just as quiet as the rest of the resort area, not totally surprising since it was the Monday after Thanksgiving. Given my choice of tables, I settled into one in front of the windows with an ocean view. Cars slowly rolled by on the boardwalk, through the inky darkness and past the city's annual holiday light display. And once I'd polished off my gyro, it was my turn to take in the full extent of the festive 32-block extravaganza.

Or at least it would be eventually. I spent way too much time confused by signage leading to the display's entrance, but my grumpiness dissipated when I saw hearty people cheerfully waving me on with wands even as the rain fell harder.

The lights depicted the kinds of things you might expect in a holiday tableau at the beach -- Santa sun-bathing, Santa water-skiing, etc. -- but also some unanticipated ones. Jurassic Beach, anyone? Still, I couldn't help smiling and humming as I cruised by representations of each of the items in "The Twelve Days of Christmas."

The next morning (as I prepared to leave, of course) the rain was gone. I'd seen all manner of wildlife, but even on this sunny fall day, one species, Homo touristus, remained elusive. But no worries. I felt as though I'd had the town, and the Komodo dragons, to myself.

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