The gourami's mouth hungrily reaches for the red ski glove but kisses the aquarium glass instead. Fish meets child.

The National Aquarium in the Commerce Department's basement is the only place in town where children can intimately learn about fish. On an recent weekday morning, several groups of schoolchildren were seen bouncing enthusiastically through the catacomb-like room that is the sum and substance of the national aquarium. Pressing her face against the tank, a kindergartener called out: "Look at the plaid one!" And her friends listened as she instructed, "This one flies, and this one, and these just swim."

The room - rectangular in shape, around a central gift shop and Japanese carp pool - was almost empty during another holiday visit. One boy of about 8 stopped at each tank with the unchanging exclamation: "Dad! Look at this one!" Dad dutifully followed.

An 11-year-old visitor was blase. This summer, he'd been to the aquarium in Mystic, Conn., and Boston's New England Aquarium, and the Washington one didn't measure up: "It's too little and it should be in a building by itself."

Characteristically, for his age, he liked the venomous fish - the stonefish, camougflaged to look like a rock, and the butterfuly fin lionfish with beautiful, deadly spines. On the other side of the tank, the employees' side where the public doesn't go, is an inside comment on these fishes, a sign that says: "ugly . . . ugly."

A teenage girl visiting the same day seemed to notice too that this was less then a great aquarium. She looked in a murky shark tank, saw three sharks, each no more than two feet long, and asked her mother, "Why don't they have a big one?" Her little sister replied helpfully: "He might break out."

The fish tanks resemble the mottled interior of a community swimming pool. Compare this to the New England Aquarium, where, along with educational displays on aquatic communities and the ocean, there's a central tank four stories high, full of enormous fishes, including sharks. While visitors watch through windows on successive ramps, or over the top of the tank, a skin-diver-keeper descends five to seven times a day to hand-feed the fish one by one. The aquarium owns 8,000 fish, representing 464 different species and has an operating budget of $2.3 million a year.

The National Aquarium gets $225,000 in federal funding, and half of that goes for salaries. Many of the 1,000 specimens of 250 species are fed from a walkway that runs above and behind the tanks. The director, Craig Phillips, brought a visitor there, and when the fish noticed, they came wiggling up to the surface, expecting to be fed. They weren't, and perhaps in a fit of pique, one porcupine fish reared back and spat - yes, spat - hitting the director suqarely on the chest. The director retaliated by scooping the little devil right out of the water, holding him like a hamburger about to be chomped. After a brief talk on how some fish like to be out of the water, and how the porcupine fish is wont to blow himself up with air, he returned the fish to the tank.

Phillips has a lot of favorites: the oldest resident, a prehistoric fish called the long-nosed gar, that has lived there for over 20 years; the piranhas, which, he says, all look a little like J. Edgar Hoover; and the hermit crab with spasmodically wiggling antennae that look for all the world like the hands of a frantic typist.

When asked what his favorite was, a young visitor replied, "The giant dead clam. It eats a 75-pound meal and makes 900 cups of clam chowder." Just looked like a big empty shell to me.

Recently the aquarium was under fire by the Humane Society of the United States for substandard treatment of fishes. Last year, an oversized octopus died a few days after arrival. The octopus was twice the size the aquarium ordered and it didn't have a tank to fit. By the time a larger tank was prepared, Phillips said, the octopus was too weak to be moved. It didn't help public relations that newspaper announcements of the octopus's arrival coincided with the morning of its death.

New arrivals are regular occurrences at the aquarium and this month is no exception. There's a new hairy lobster with white polka dots on it, and some chunky, hatchetlike little cowfish from Florida in new comer's guarantine for another week. And from Indochina, mandarin fish, dancing around the tank like tiny blue Chinese New Year dragons.

The national aquarium is thought by some to be a national disgrace, but it's the only fish show in town. And it's free.


In the basement of the Commerce Department on 14th Street between E Street and Constitution Avenue, the national aquarium is open seven days a week from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. On your way in to see the aquarium, stop on the first floor to watch the U.S. population counter add about four people a minute. No parking available except what you can find in the Smithsonian complex, meter parking on the 15th Street side of the building, or parking in a paid lot across 14th Street. The acquarium shares the basement with an attractive cafeteria, open Monday through Friday from 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Across Constitution Avenue are other nearby eateries: the cafeterias in Smithsonian's History and Technology building or in the National Gallery of Art.