Where the 'Bears' Are

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was supposed to be the Great Panda Adventure. But for me it became the Great Plexiglas Adventure--an admittedly peculiar transformation that I'll explain in due course.

Our impromptu pilgrimage to the San Diego Zoo's new Giant Panda exhibit came at precisely the wrong moment. I started dialing for room deals on a Thursday and immediately discovered that the impending weekend was tagged onto Veterans Day.

Faced with a virtual San Diego sellout, we jury-rigged a deal at the Bahia Hotel on Mission Bay, coughing up $275 for a suite Saturday night, then moving to a studio the next day at a discounted rate of $129.

The Bahia is a sprawling, 325-room architectural hodgepodge. Our suite, in a coral-pink, two-story cinder block building, reminded my wife, Pam, and me of the sort of posh vacation digs that we, as children in the '60s, had imagined Sammy Davis Jr. frequenting.

Immediately upon arrival Saturday night, our children--Ashley, 12, Emily, 9, and Bobby, 7--led us off to explore the resort's 14 acres. We trotted around a meandering duck pond, tried out the beach playground and watched seals sleeping in the hotel's own little seal pool. Then, while I dashed off for take-out Chinese food, Pam and the kids hit the pool and Jacuzzi.

The next morning, we arrived at the zoo before the gates opened at 9. It was hardly surprising that a few of us in line found ourselves afflicted with those deadly sins peculiar to the media-maddened final days of the 20th century: celebrity lust and experiential greed.

On loan from China for 12 years, at the special research rental rate (donated to China for habitat protection) of $1 million a year, the Giant Pandas have stirred what locals call pandamonium (a sad symptom of which is pandemic punning). The zoo has pandered to the public's appetite with the skill of Michael Jackson's publicist, escorting the creatures to the park in a full-fledged motorcade on Sept. 10, then secreting them away for several weeks of testing.

The pandas finally went on display Nov. 1. We arrived at the panda exhibit 45 minutes after entering the park, the 584th to589th arrivals of the morning, according to an employee with a clicker who said that about 1,000 people an hour troop through during the usual 9 a.m.-3 p.m. display period. (To make sure the pandas are on view, call [888] MY PANDA.)

As we neared the pandas, video monitors told us that poaching and habitat loss threatens these shy beasts, which are not technically bears, but members of a bear-like family (Ailuropodidae) from China. They normally feed on bamboo but are, in fact, carnivores. A mere 1,000 of them remain, faced with the same predicament as so many species worldwide: extinction.

In the pandas' outdoor inner sanctum, a zoo employee perched on what looked like a lifeguard tower, repeatedly tells the pandas' story: that Shi Shi, the adolescent male, was found wounded in the wilds of China; that Bai Yun, the 5-year-old female, was born in captivity.

Shi Shi means "Rock," we were told, and the name seemed to fit. I paused to determine which camouflaged lump looked most bearlike. But, instantly, a uniformed zoo guard urged me to "Please keep the line moving."

Bai Yun means "white cloud." But "furry brown and beige rock" would fit her too. I watched her sleep for 45 seconds or so, before the pressure to move on squirted me from the exhibit.

Borrowing a marketing trick from Disneyland, the zoo spills panda viewers head-on into a gift shop, where they can purchase all manner of panda paraphernalia: flags, beach towels, umbrellas (with or without panda ears), earrings, socks, masks, letterman's jackets, sunglasses, Christmas ornaments, bibs, shot glasses, thimbles, fans, pens, shoelaces, spoons, puzzles, golf balls, furry panda purses and panda-motif bottles of balsamic vinegar. (All profits from these sales go to panda research, according to the zoo's excellent Web site: http://www.sandiegozoo.org/home.html).

Later, munching sandwiches at the zoo's Treehouse Cafe, we decided the pandas were swell, but no more or less deserving of adoration than the pygmy marmosets, the Island Siamangs or, for that matter, the attention-starved Chinese Lesser Pandas exhibited elsewhere in the park.

As far as I'm concerned, though, the real star of the show wasn't even animate, let alone an animal. A clue to my obsession with this can be gleaned from our behavior on Sunday night.

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We left the zoo an hour before closing, feeling as if we had hiked every inch of its 100 acres. Back at the hotel, we hastily pulled on swimsuits and sprinted barefoot to the pool enclosure. But wait! The gate was locked! I approached a hotel manager, who calmly informed me that the pool was being drained for repairs.

Veterans Day weekend? Balmy weather? Exorbitant room rates? And no warning that the hotel would pick this sold-out holiday to drain its pool? I must not have shown great equanimity, for I later had to remind my wide-eyed children of the gorilla exhibit at the zoo, which informed us that grunting, chest-pounding and similarly assertive behavior is common to many primates when familial well-being is threatened.

To the hotel's credit, its courteous staff ultimately offered to move disappointed guests to the resort's sister facility, the Catamaran, or to make the pools there available. We chose the latter option, driving the mile and a half around the bay to frolic in what my children unanimously declared a superior waterscape.

Which brings me back to Plexiglas.

As I said, it took us 45 minutes to get from the zoo's entrance to the pandas. Why? Well, we took the Tiger River trail. At the very first turn, a swarm of crocodiles confronted us, yellow eyes and rose-thorn teeth glistening as they swam behind a Plexiglas window.

A few paces down the well-landscaped trail, we came to Hippo Beach, and could barely tear ourselves from the sight of these monsters as they lumbered along, up to their wiggling ears in an ersatz river.

After glimpsing the pandas, we hiked to the Polar Bear Plunge, which was the zoo's hot new attraction in June. The four bears lolled on terra firma. But the mere hope of seeing them traipse into the specially chilled water would have kept me there for hours if our pre-adolescent had not been so antsy.

It was here that I had my revelation, an echo of that line from "The Graduate": Plastics. In the several years since I last visited the zoo, I realized, interspecies observation had been revolutionized by the use of acrylic and layered glass walls.

Our trip to Sea World the next day confirmed the epiphany. At each show we sat in the "soak zones," directly behind thick, transparent windows holding back millions of gallons of water. Dolly the dolphin and her pilot whale pals shot by our noses underwater, then reared up to drench us. Shamu and company also left us sopping. But even without the dousing, it is exhilarating to watch these creatures in their fluid realm.

We saw penguins dive for fish; eels snarl from rock caves and otters cavort. And in the highlight of the vacation for Bobby, we rode a moving sidewalk through a clear tube, as sharks prowled above and to either side.

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Finally, as the park prepared to shut down, we stumbled upon a new attraction called Shamu Backstage. The viewing windows are 9 feet high and 70 feet long. The 6.7-million-gallon pool they reveal is 30 feet deep and as mysterious as the sea bottom seen through a dive mask lens.

As we stood staring at the undulating blue wall, an employee gently told us that it was unlikely any Orcas would be housed there before closing. A moment later, though, two dark shapes flashed in the depths and, astonishingly, pressed themselves against the window.

Our kids and a handful of other spectators instinctively did likewise, their genuinely awe-stricken faces reflected in the glass as their hands seemed to stroke the black and white creatures.

I know that some animal aficionados got the same sort of thrill from glimpsing that other black and white twosome on dry land.

But I think the zoo would be well advised to install some Plexiglas in that bamboo grove, and fit Shi Shi and Bai Yun with water wings.

Sipchen writes for The Times' Life & Style section.

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Budget for Five

Bahia Hotel, 2 nights: $446.00

Takeout, Mandarin House: 30.00

Zoo admission w/hotel discount: 75.00

Breakfast at zoo: 12.00

Lunch, Treehouse Cafe: 34.00

Breakfast, Bahia: 30.00

Sea World parking: 5.00

Sea World admission, discount: 121.00

Dinner, La Pin~ata restaurant: 53.00

FINAL TAB: $806.00

Bahia Hotel, 998 W. Mission Bay Drive, San Diego 92109; tel. (619) 488-0551, (800) 288-0770. Zoo information, tel. (619) 234-3153.

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