Head south this winter to Sea Life

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January 29, 2013
By: Linda Koutsky
Linda Koutsky

My friends Pam and Gary had to rub it in — they called from the airport and asked if I was sure I didn’t want to join them for a couple weeks in Belize. This year they’d be staying two months and there’d be plenty of time for me to visit. Two weeks ago I was confident of my answer. Now, I question it as I gaze at the bleak whiteness and sneer at Twin City Towing’s receipt for my car’s new battery (thank you cold snap). Suddenly deep-sea fishing, snorkeling amidst colorful coral, and sipping tropical drinks under bright yellow full-strength sun sounds more than appealing. Why in the world did I say no?

So yesterday I decided to take a snowbound friend, the Percolator, on a mini aquatic vacation of our own. Somehow in all my trips to the Mall of America I’ve never wandered into that lower level aquarium now known as Sea Life. Their ads said admission for adults was $19.99. Yikes — I could go to two or three movies for that! But since I was still mad at Pam and Gary I figured I’d spring for it. Then, when I checked their website for hours I was pleased to learn that booking tickets online saves $5.

We took the escalator down two levels and came upon Sea Life’s first exhibit: Ray Lagoon. A giant pool with rounded sides was filled with swimming stingrays. With no bones in their bodies they glided effortlessly and splashed up alongside the glass walls. We were mesmerized right off the bat. An underwater viewing bubble and overhead platform were popular with kids.

Next up, hands-on tidepools where visitors can actually pick up starfish and other small animals. Beautifully designed, nautically inspired, interactive exhibits teach about animal life, habitats, and conservation. Sea Life seemed more like a science museum than other aquariums I’ve visited. Within our first 10 minutes I confessed, “This was already worth admission.”

We found out slipper lobsters are nocturnal then rounded a corner into a dark, narrow hallway. The space became magical as jellyfish floated in cylindrical tanks lit from below with colorful lighting. Get your cameras ready! It was like a modern dance performance. I could have stayed in there an hour.

Tanks with cute seahorses, vivid tropical fish, and waving corals lined the cave-like corridor. Then it all opened up and we were underwater. Perc actually held his breath! An 8-foot shark swam over his head and I ducked — he’d have to fend for himself. (Although I did learn that more people are killed by falling coconuts than from shark attacks.)

I’d heard about the glass tube through the aquarium but I had no idea you’d lose all sense of scale and not see any seams. It was like we were right there in the water. More stingrays, sharks of all sizes, an alligator gar . . . they’d come right at you, look you in the eye, and somehow miss your head by inches. It was as close to SCUBA diving as I’ll ever get. For us locals, Sea Life even has a nod to Lake Life: one aquarium is filled with walleye, lake sturgeon, large mouth bass, and muske.

You can go through Sea Life at your own pace and once you’ve paid admission you can come back more times throughout that day. People were casually milling around and generally taking their time and enjoying themselves. We were there on a Saturday and even though the greeter said they were very busy we didn’t find it too crowded.

In all honesty, Belize isn’t on my vacation wish list. I had a great adventure at Sea Life and I’d do it all again in a minute. If you really need a winter escape, who can’t afford a $15 vacation?

DINNER BREAK: Stick with the theme and order Catch of the Day at Twin City Grill, (MOA 130N)