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Sunday, May 31, 1992 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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New Oregon Coast Aquarium Makes A Big Splash In Newport

Any public aquarium worth its salt is more than a random collection of sea creatures served up behind glass to provide thrills for curious sight-seers. The great aquariums educate while they entertain.

The Oregon Coast Aquarium, which opened last Saturday in Newport, succeeds in both entertaining and educating: its dazzling displays provide visitors with a balanced, informed understanding of the Northwest's vast marine resources.

With tourists flocking to the Oregon coast all year around, the centrally-located town of Newport was a natural location for the $24-million dollar aquarium.

Bordered on three sides by salt water, the town of Newport hosts a sizable fishing fleet, public docks popular with vagrants from the nearby seal colonies, and wide beaches. It can now add the Oregon Coast Aquarium, an attractive showcase on the sea.

The aquarium was 10 years in the making; it's administered by a private, non-profit group and is designed to broaden the region's economic base of fishing and timber.

On the aquarium's 29-acre site, a visitor can embark on a special journey: following the meandering course of a drop of fresh water from the coastal mountains, through waterways and estuaries, and into the wide embrace of the Pacific. Like links in a chain, the carefully arranged aquarium tanks, habitats and aviaries carry the visitor along a journey of ecological discovery.

The sequence begins adjacent to the parking lot. From the main gate, a bubbling stream winds through stands of typical mountain flora, guiding visitors to the entrance of the 40,000-square-foot complex of buildings.

Suspended from the ceiling just inside, a startlingly realistic school of fiberglass salmon points the way. And the sights, sounds and smells of Oregon's coast infuse the four large indoor galleries.

In the wetlands exhibit, the river meets the sea and creates mudflats and salt marshes, a fragile, finely-balanced habitat for diverse creatures. Waves lap on a beach where flatfish and sand dollars nestle in quiet sands. In a circular aquarium, near-shore fishes weave through a maze of pier pilings that wear encrusted marine animals like a living skin.

As a veteran prowler of tide pools, I found myself irresistibly drawn to the rocky shore displays, featuring a touch pool, kelp forest habitat and offshore reef exhibit.

To view a fraction of the Pacific's intertidal life in a natural setting, one has to be at the right place at precisely the right time (a minus tide), then be prepared to slip and slide over sharp rocks and boulders covered with seaweed. And, because minus tides usually occur at inconvenient times, one usually rises at dawn and braves the chill of coastal fog.

Collectors for the new aquarium roamed the Pacific Northwest coast, including Puget Sound, gathering specimens of the most beautiful and fascinating near-shore marine species, now assembled in one place for visitors to appreciate in comfort.

Sea anemones, sea stars, sea cucumbers, spiny urchins, nudibranchs and a host of other invertebrate animals, as well as fish, glow like living jewels within the crystal-like waters of the aquarium's largest tank.

Many of the smaller aquaria have been positioned at child's-eye level, as has the touch pool. Here, youngsters may stroke, pet and tickle some hardy species such as crabs, chitons, and sea stars.

Supervising all this zoological intimacy is the ever-present, good-natured docent, busy fielding questions.

To view the outdoor exhibits, visitors wander through a labyrinth of miniature sea cliffs and pinnacles. Around each corner something new is waiting.

Waves pound against a rocky shore, spraying colorful marine creatures exposed at low tide.

Tufted puffins and rhinoceros auklets plunge in and out of the "sea" inside the world's largest open-air seabird aviary.

Seals and sea lions slide like torpedoes through the water, then haul themselves out to snooze on the rocks.

Sea otters roll and tumble in a marathon of playing, grooming and feeding, observable from both above and below the surface. (Hunted to extinction off the Oregon coast by 1910, sea otters have failed to make a comeback here.)

All marine mammals at the new facility were either rescued from the wild or born in captivity.

Nearly every feature of the Oregon Coast Aquarium underscores the state's commitment to environmental preservation, from the Whale Theater down to the Discovery Lab where tiny sea creatures can be viewed, and appreciated, with the aid of special magnifiers.

The aquarium is destined to make a big splash among elementary school students as well; 15,000 of them will tour the facility every year, learning to understand and value things alive, wild and wonderful that thrive along Pacific shores.

MORE INFORMATION

-- The Oregon Coast Aquarium is located on the southern edge of Newport off Ferry Slip Road. It's open daily from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. until October 15, winter hours are 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Admission is $7 (adults), $5 (seniors) and $3 (children ages 4 - 11). Children under 4 are free.

-- For more information, phone 1-503-867-3474 or for recorded information phone 1-503-867-3123.

Nancy Sefton is a Seattle freelance writer and photographer.

Copyright (c) 1992 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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