Tucked under the boardwalk, directly beneath the floorboards of the carousel at the Santa Monica Pier, is the UCLA Ocean Discovery Center, one of the best-kept secrets on the Santa Monica Bay.
"I never knew this place was here!" repeats public programs coordinator Jodi Low, laughing about the most common response she hears from visitors who find their way to the facility for the first time. But the center's mission to put children and their families in touch--literally--with sea life is easily accomplished once people make it through its doors. The place is family focused, adds Low, saying, "We're small enough that we're manageable for families with younger children."
And small it is. Only a couple of rooms, the facility hardly stacks up to most animal parks or commercial aquariums. The center's hardwood floors and schoolroom ambience says: This is no theme park or game arcade. There are no flashing lights or high-tech thrill rides. But while a full-sized aquarium may have tens of thousands of gallons full of exhibits, the appeal of this half-pint facility is that it is specifically designed on a kid-sized scale.
Children of elementary school age, even toddlers, will be drawn in by the hands-on access to marine animals. And though science education courses are provided for school classes and groups throughout the year, the center is given over to families--100 to 250 people every Saturday and Sunday afternoon throughout the fall and winter.
Visitors begin with a self-guided tour of the facility. At each of the tanks full of animals from the Santa Monica Bay, they're greeted by trained volunteers who are eager to share the fun facts and anecdotes about their tank's occupants.
There are 10 tanks in the facility, including three touch tanks and a shark tank. Besides the sharks, the center has an octopus and a variety of fish and animals from the inner tidal zone. But the center's long, low open-topped touch tanks are the main attraction.
Children can plunge their hands into the water of a tankful of sea cucumbers, kelp crabs and sea urchins. The red sea urchin with its soft "quills" actually seems to grasp a visitor's fingers. "We like to say it's giving you a hug, but the animal is actually trying to see what is touching it," Low explains. There are tanks full of sea stars, skates and sea anemones. And the shark tank--with horned and swell sharks--is low enough to allow close inspection of the animals. For obvious reasons, this is not a touch tank.
Besides the animals, there are arts and crafts--child-size tables are set with scissors, crayons, cutouts, paper and glue sticks, all of the supplies necessary to make the center's ever-popular sea lion puppets. And there are puzzles, books and outdoor activities as well.
Older children will find a challenge in the computer lab, where the computers are loaded with slide shows of marine life and a virtual tide pool and even a computer game, Plankton TV, created by center volunteer Alan Shimoide. Next to the computers are the microscopes; one is connected to a video monitor that magnifies the dizzying paths of a petri dish full of brine shrimp. Another microscope stands ready to give visitors a magnified look at seashells, algae or sand samples.In addition to the animals, media room and arts and crafts activities, the center shows films on marine life every hour on the half-hour. Visitors with young children are encouraged to arrange their arrival to catch story time at 2:30 p.m.
And everyone enjoys feeding time at 3 p.m. Volunteer Stan Whitman and other volunteers prepare the animals' food. Whitman uses a simple recipe--no breading, no butter. "It's one-third smelt, one-third anchovies and one-third shrimp."
He cuts the pieces according to the bite size of the fish--chopped fine for smaller fish, chunky for the larger fish. Children are spellbound by the swirling frenzy as the occupants of the tanks battle over the morsels of food.
A visit to the center can easily take two to three hours or more. And most children, as well as their parents, leave with the memory of a good time, a little knowledge, and most important a new connection to marine life in Santa Monica Bay.
The UCLA Ocean Discovery Center, 1600 Ocean Front Walk (at beach level below the carousel on the Santa Monica Pier), Santa Monica. Saturdays and Sundays, 11 a.m.-5 p.m. $3, 3 years and older. (310) 393-6149 or www.odc.ucla.edu.