Sunday, November 6, 2016

Stop to Smell the Flowers in the Fairchild Botanical Gardens of Miami, Florida


In late October of 2016, my husband and I had the chance to stay in sunny Miami for a week or so. This was mainly achieved because Joey’s company was holding their annual general meeting, or AGM, down there for three days, and spouses were invited to tag along. (Even if we hadn’t been invited, there was no way Joey was going without me!) So for three of the days I was in Miami, Joey was unable to explore the city with me due to the AGM, leaving me to check off items from my list on my own.

One of the places I explored independently was the Fairchild Botanical Gardens. Located in the northern part of the city in the area of Coconut Grove, it was a bit of a drive from South Miami Beach where we were staying. In fact, it was my first solo Uber drive ever, which was an adventure unto itself. (Stay tuned for a how-to article on Ubering! A few friends have requested it.) 

The gorgeous grounds of the Fairchild Botanical Gardens in Miami

I had originally wanted to visit Villa Vizcaya, but I got my dates mixed up and ended up going on a day when it was closed. After a gruelling hour and fifteen minute drive with an Uber-Pool driver who probably shouldn’t have been driving any vehicle in the first place, we made it to Villa Vizcaya (a twenty minute drive at the most according to Google Maps). And it was closed! My driver, who also did not speak English, dropped me off and left, leaving me on the side of the road to figure out what the heck I was going to do with myself. 


Holding a beautiful rainforest flower in the Fairchild Botanical Gardens greenhouse
I didn’t want to waste that extremely long drive, and since I was in the relative area, decided to go just a little further into Coconut Grove and hit up the botanical gardens. So I summoned another Uber, this time specifying ‘no carpool’ just to save time, and made it to the gardens in a decent amount of time. (We did get lost once, as the access road to the gardens can be a little tricky.) Look for 10901 Old Culter Road - NOT the Old Culter Road sign, which is where my driver first turned accidentally. There is a sign on the road indicating which correct driveway to use to access the gardens. 


A Haitian palm tree - apparently the Fairchild Botanical Gardens have more of them than Haiti itself!

I was dropped off finally at the gift shop and admission building, and made my way inside. Admission fees are $25 for adults, $18 for seniors, $12 for kids 6-17, and free for kids 5 and under. Luckily, the gardens are open every day (except Christmas Day) from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., so I knew I wouldn’t be turned away at the door. I didn’t have much time to explore, due to my ridiculously long journey to get there, so I hurried out of the gift shop and to the trolley pick-up area so I could get a good overview of the gardens before setting out on foot. 


Riding the garden trolley around the park

The Fairchild Botanical Garden offers up a trolley service that takes you on a full loop around the generous grounds. It is a free, guided ride, led by enthusiastic and knowledgable garden enthusiasts. Every now and then, the trolley stops and your guide will point out certain plants, discussing their propagation, growth, and history to help you learn about a variety of species. 

We drove around the entire circumference of the park, past groves of internationally acquired palm trees, cacti, edible plants, and more. To be honest, the majority of trees were palm trees, from seemingly every nation possible, with hundreds of different varieties. My favourite palm tree was the Petticoat Palm, which doesn’t shed its leaves once they die like every other palm, but instead pushes them downwards in an effort to protect the trunk, making it look like the tree is wearing a very bushy hula skirt, hence the name. 


The unique Petticoat Palm at the Fairchild Botanical Gardens

I loved the large Baobab tree, even though it was considered small in comparison to those that grow in countries such as Yemen. I gave it a big hug!


Hugging a Baobab tree

Another tree that caught my eye was the colourful and aptly named Rainbow Eucalyptus, with its trunk looking like it was in the middle of a paintball battle. 


A gorgeous and vibrant Rainbow Eucalyptus tree at the Fairchild Botanical Gardens

In the edible garden, I learned that papayas do not grow from the branches of trees like most fruiting plants, but instead pop out of the trunk like little buds. It makes the tree look like it is covered with gigantic aphids!


Papayas growing from the tree's trunk

Before I visited the gardens, naturally I had looked them up online (if you are a regular reader, you will already be familiar with my OCD method of trip planning). A year ago, when I first learned that we would be visiting Miami, I had attacked Pinterest enthusiastically looking for ideas on things to see and do. The glass art of Dale Chihuly at the Fairchild Botanical Gardens caught my eye instantly. So I was really disappointed to read that his art in the garden had only been a temporary instalment and that it had been removed several years ago. 


Glass art from Dale Chihuly in the rainforest greenhouse

Therefore, I was extremely excited during the trolley ride to see that some of Chihuly pieces had been gifted to the gardens and were still in place. As soon as the trolley ride ended, I hustled across the garden grounds to check them out. There was a gorgeous chandelier piece in the rainforest greenhouse that dipped into the koi pond, sending rainbows of light dancing across the water.  There was also an outdoor lily pond filled with vibrant purple glass ‘flowers’ that seemed to glow when the sun filtered through them. 


More beautiful glass art from Dale Chihuly at the Fairchild Botanical Gardens


I only ended up staying at the Fairchild Botanical Gardens for about an hour, maybe a little more, due to time constraints. I could have stayed there for a few hours longer, wandering through the various ‘groves’, stopping for a snack at the cafeteria, and perusing the gift shop, which had some really pretty items for sale. However, my husband’s AGM had lunch plans for us, and I had to get back to South Miami Beach. If you find yourself at the Fairchild Botanical Gardens, I do recommend you plan your trip to last at least two or more hours. 


Friday, October 28, 2016

Explore Miami's "Little Havana" Neighborhood


Miami, Florida is geographically very close to Cuba. So naturally, the city of Miami has a strong Cuban community and culture. Wet met a ton of people from Cuba or with strong Cuban heritage: my Uber driver, my hotel waiter, and the server at Subway were all from Cuba and proud of it.

Although Cuban culture is intertwined throughout the entire city of Miami, it is the neighbourhood of "Little Havana" where you can see it freely displayed out in the open in vibrant and fun fashion. Just a small neighbourhood, ranging from South Miami Avenue to South West 107th Avenue, Little Havana offers a multitude of choices for Cuban restaurants, bars, music, art, and plenty of cigars! To find all the action, focus on South West 8th Street, affectionately known as "Calle Ocho". I headed down there last Monday with my husband and a group of four other people from his work. (We are in Miami for my husband's company's AGM this week.)

Most buildings in Little Havana have amazing artwork on the walls

Once you hit the Little Havana area, you will know it. The streets become a little more vibrant with colour, sound, and the smells of delicious cooking. For me, the street art and decor was my first give-away that I had reached Little Havana (other than our taxi driver saying, "Here you are in Little Havana." That may have actually been my first give-away!)

Gorgeous graffiti in Little Havana

I loved how even the simplest of things, like the garbage cans on the sidewalk, were painted with bright colours and designs in an effort to make the neighbourhood stand out from the rest of modern Miami. Graffiti art, REAL graffiti art and not tagging, adorned the walls of restaurants and shops, making the alleys and dead spots seem inviting and exciting. Shops had fun themes and colourful signs welcoming patrons inside with promises of authentic Cuban wares beyond their doors.

The planters and garbage cans in Little Havana even have flair

One of my favourite 'decor' items in Little Havana were the gigantic painted roosters, installed by artist Pedro Damian beginning in 2002 and onwards. Damian was a Cuban-born artist who moved to Florida in the 1980s. Inspired by the distinctive flamingo installations in the Coral Gables district of Miami, Damian wanted to have art pieces within the city limits that represented his Cubanidad culture. Roosters are a symbol of good luck, a new day, and new beginnings for the Latino and Caribbean cultures, and so installing them in Little Havana was a perfect fit.

A beautiful lucky rooster in Little Havana

We found several in the Little Havana area, and I thought they were excellent. Their bright colours, the  funky patterns, and just the sheer size of them made for fantastic photo opportunities, and they livened up the street corners with their happy sight.

I always try to get a photo with local law enforcement when I travel!

And there's not just art outside on the streets, although the plethora of professionally graffitied walls would make a fascinating art walk. There are also tons of Cuban-inspired art galleries within the neighbourhood. We ventured into one, which is where I learned all about Pedro Damian and his good luck roosters. Everyone seemed so talented down there; if I were a wealthy person I'd for sure go purchase some art from Little Havana for my home.

Amazing and vibrant art in Little Havana

If there are plenty of art galleries in Little Havana, then you have to multiply that number by 10 to have a ballpark number of just how many cigar stores there were. Every second shop, it seemed, was a cigar store. Only a few that we saw make and roll their own cigars, but most that we peered into were well-stocked with rows upon rows of cigars of every shape, size, and flavour. Most cigar shops had plush leather couches and shiny mahogany coffee tables reserved just for those who wanted to sink into the cushions for a relaxing smoke.

Cigar shops abound in Little Havana
A lovely place to sit and smoke cigars

We don't smoke cigars, although I do admit that I like the smell of an unlit stogie. It seems like it could really grow into an expensive habit, as my husband spied a single cigar that was selling for $500!

Rows upon rows of cigars in Little Havana

On we wandered down Calle Ocho until we found Domino Park, which was something I had wanted to encounter. The Domino Park is apparently a hub of activity for locals, particularly those of Cuban heritage, as they congregate there to play dominos, talk of politics, and meet old friends for a few hours in the day.

Domino art in domino park - how fitting!

Some players were incredibly focused on the game, slamming their dominos down on the table with a loud 'clack', and a few arguments broke out here and there. Local security patrolled the small domino area, reminding players that they were there as friends and dousing the fires. It was interesting to say the least, but everyone seemed to be having a good time despite the occasional rumblings.

Some serious gaming happening here in Domino Park

After doing all of this lovely sightseeing, soaking in some of exciting Cuban culture, we were a hungry lot. I ran into a shop to buy a fedora, feeling fashion-inspired by the people of Little Havana, and the shopkeeper recommended the restaurant next door for an authentic Cuban meal. Trusting the locals, we headed there.

A sample of our restaurant menu in Little Havana

The food was indeed delicious! Some of us ordered Cuban sandwiches, made of slow-roasted pulled pork, ham, Swiss cheese, pickles and mustard, layered on a special type of Cuban bread. I asked what made this bread 'Cuban', and was told that Cuban bread is made with a lot of butter and is incredibly fluffy. Just before the sandwich is served, the bread is then pressed flat. Because of the amount of air within the bread, it has to be made fresh each day or it goes stale quite quickly. I had a Cuban sandwich on a different day, and can attest to how delicious it was!

That day in Little Havana, my husband and I ordered pulled, crispy chicken on black bean rice with sweet plantains and avocado salad. It was amazing and I am getting hungry just writing about it. We also had an appetizer of croquettes, which were made of mashed potatoes and finely ground ham and beef, wrapped in a breadcrumbed, fried roll. They were tasty, but the consistency of the blended meat and potatoes inside was a little mushy for my liking. My husband and I topped it all off with a cortadito, or Cuban coffee, which is like an espresso only it is made with a touch of brown sugar. It was strong and just what I needed after walking around the neighbourhood all afternoon.

A Cuban 'cortadito' coffee. Image via

After our satisfying lunch, we continued exploring Little Havana. It was almost time for us to catch our ride back to our hotel, so we stopped in a little pub called the Ball and Chain for a quick drink as a group. Why did we choose the ol' Ball and Chain? Because a fun live band was playing out front, a suave dancer shaking his maracas and his bon-bon with gusto and talent. He had to have been in his 60s, and was an excellent dancer. So inside we went.

Having some maraca fun in the Ball and Chain in Little Havana

We were ushered into the back courtyard of the Ball and Chain, which featured a large stage in the shape of a pineapple. I assume there are some pretty fun bands and parties in the Ball and Chain courtyard in the evenings. For that afternoon, the stage was empty and the courtyard quiet. My group and I enjoyed some mojitos, then headed back to Miami Beach for our evening dinner with my husband's company.

The pineapple stage

Little Havana should not be missed if you are in Miami. The atmosphere, the food, and the people are all fantastic, and it will be an experience you won't soon forget!

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Alligators and Air Boats: Touring Florida's Everglades


Right now, at this very moment, I am sitting in a fuzzy white hotel robe, snuggled into a queen-sized bed of my very own, sipping wine from a water glass and very much enjoying my life. My husband's company is holding their annual AGM in Miami, Florida this year, and I got to tag along. We arrived a couple of days before the AGM began so that we could do a little exploring of this vibrant city and its surrounding areas, and explore we did! Today we spent the morning touring the Florida Everglades, which is an excursion you cannot skip if you find yourself in Miami.

Getting ready for our first ever air boat ride!

I had originally pre-booked a tour with a different company, but a few weeks ago, Hurricane Matthew swept through the state and wreaked a little havoc on the local landscape. My original tour company cancelled with us, because their area of the Everglades had high waters and the Florida State Parks department temporarily suspended their tours until the waters were at a safe level again. I didn't panic because I knew there were tons of tour companies that patrol the Everglades, and many of them operate from different locations, so someone was bound to be open.

And luckily, someone was. We booked a tour through our hotel concierge at the Fontainebleau (more on the hotel to come), and Guillermo sure knew what he was talking about! The Miccosukee tribe offers a package deal that includes a tour of their Indian Village, an alligator show, and an air boat ride. (Yes, they label it "Indian Village" so don't give me any flack over the terminology in the comments please - I didn't name the village!) The entire package was $60 per adult for a five hour adventure, including travel time to and from the village.

Our trusty yellow air boat.

We met our tour leader, Jimmy, at 8:30 a.m. in the hotel lobby. He ushered us onto a nicely air-conditioned coach bus, and then whipped us around Miami Beach to various other hotels where he picked up all of the other tour guests. After a few jokes about feeding tourists to the alligators, we were off - out of Miami and into the Everglades.

This is one sign I will most certainly obey!

It was about an hour drive, but the time passed quickly as we enjoyed the scenery. I even saw two alligators just in the watery ditches as we made our way! (I might have seen three, but one of those alligators may have just been a clump of dirt.) People were out fishing in little boats in those very same ditches, with an alligator just a hop, skip, and a jump away. I wasn't sure what to think!

We arrived at the Miccosukee (pronounced Me-co-sue-kay) Indian Village around 10:00 a.m. There we had a little free time before the events were scheduled to begin, so we shopped in the gift shop and checked out some of the kitschy statues out front.

Enjoying the tacky but fun sculptures outside the Miccosukee Indian Village.

Our first event turned out to be my absolute favourite thing of the day: alligator wrestling. Our demonstrator's name was Pharrell. (I think - if anyone from the Miccosukee organization reads this and I am wrong, please correct me in the comments below!) He was such a pro! He had zero fear of the alligators, he was super gentle and loving to them, he knew so much about their anatomy and behaviour, and he was an engaging entertainer. Top props to him and his fantastic show.

Pharrell explained to us that alligators are not inherently man-eaters - in fact, they aren't really that violent unless they are in the act of grabbing food. And they only really like to feed on smaller creatures that can actually fit in their mouth. What they DO like to do is to conserve energy. They can hold their breath for five to eight hours, and go for a year without eating. They also prefer to be submerged underwater, where they think no one can see them or bother them. Then they don't have to move and can conserve their energy even further!

An alligator, patiently preserving its energy.

Once Pharrell assured us that alligators can be quite passive and even timid, he then showed us some techniques on how to capture an alligator with your bare hands. These methods, he explained, come from early indigenous peoples who used to capture alligators without tools or weapons in order to bring them back to the tribe to use as food and more.

There are two things I want to be made clear. One: just because I am explaining these methods and sharing a video of Pharrell working with the gators does NOT mean any readers should go and try it themselves. Pharrell told me that he has been capturing alligators since he was ten, and is extremely experienced. So there's my disclaimer. You are not Pharrell. Don't capture gators. Two: Pharrell was always extremely gentle and kind to the alligators during his show. He showed great respect for the animals, and they never appeared to be terrified or pain. (One got a little hissy, but that was about it.) I was impressed by Pharrell's knowledge and appreciated his care towards towards the alligators. So don't watch the video and get upset thinking he was hurting them, because I assure you, he was not.

Our alligator wrestler teaching us about alligator anatomy.

First, our alligator wrestler literally drug one of the passive alligators front and centre for the show. He then taught us about some basic alligator anatomy. Alligator skulls are hard as rocks and hollow, the strong bones designed for crushing and clutching prey. They have very strong jaw muscles for biting; in fact, the strongest in the world. But they have weak jaw muscles for opening their jaws. This is why once a gator has its jaws tied together, it can't really snap its mouth back open and break its bonds. Alligators have large ears behind their eyes, and can hear just as well as humans. Their eyes can sink about an inch into their skull when they close them, which is why IF you are ever in the clutches of an alligator, poking it in the eye will not help you. There was so much more information, but you really should attend the show if you want to learn it all.

Pharrell then performed a couple of tricks for us. He showed us how to calm an alligator by applying gentle pressure to its back and covering its eyes. He was able to demonstrate how to tie an alligator's mouth shut, unaided, all the while keeping his alligator calm and relaxed. He even stuck his chin into the alligator's mouth. It was all quite impressive. I won't go on anymore about it - watch the video, and then go to the actual show to see it all in its amazing glory!

His chin is INSIDE the alligator's mouth.

After Pharrell's performance with the adult alligators, we each got to cuddle a little 4-year-old baby gator. It was so soft!

Marti... the next alligator wrestler? He WAS pretty cute!

We then toured the Miccosukee Indian Village, learning about patchwork, beadwork, silver smithing, wood carving, and much more. Our guide Cherice taught us about the original settlement of the Everglades and how the Miccosukee tribe was able to build a civilization in the middle of a swamp land. It was very interesting, and I loved the hut designs (the huts were called chiquis, pronounced chickies).

Some beautiful tortoise shells at the Miccosukee Indian Village

Cherice's favourite thing about her part of the tour was introducing us to "Tiny", the stuffed alligator in the Miccosukee Museum. Tiny had been gifted to the tribe after a short stint in the movie industry. He had been 'fired' for trying to bite people. And to paint a picture for you, "Tiny" was a 16-foot-long behemoth of an alligator. When he died, the tribe had him taxidermied (is that the term?) and preserved forevermore.

Tiny is not so tiny...

Finally, after the village tour wrapped up, we hopped across the highway to the air boats. Jimmy handed us off to Umberto, who loaded us onto a bright yellow air boat and handed us some squishy orange ear buds. Once everyone was ready, we launched away from the dock and the air boat fan revved up. Off we flew into the grassy swamps of the Everglades, lily pads and muhly grasses whizzing past us.

I LOVED the air boat ride. The boat was amazingly smooth - even when we bounded over thick patches of grass or lumpy outcrops of mud, you couldn't feel a single bump. The wind whipped around us, cooling us off from the hot Florida sun. We didn't see any alligators during that portion of the tour, but the ride was so exhilarating I didn't care. We got to sit in the front row on the first leg of our journey, so we had a fantastic view of the "River of Grass".

The Florida Everglades in all their glory.

My favourite part was when Umberto decided to give us a thrill and cut a corner a little too sharply, where we'd swish across the water sideways. I called it the 'side slide' and would throw my hands in the air whenever he'd do it. So he did it a lot. If I lived in the Everglades, I would own an air boat, and I would side slide all over the swamp with it. It is that fun.

Umberto let me sit in his seat!

Umberto took us to an 'island' created by a clan of the Miccosukee, right in the middle of the Everglades. Over years and years and years, this clan has built a series of wooden chiquis, platforms, and boardwalks over the swamp, using a remote patch of somewhat solid ground as a foundation. This is where the clan and its growing family would live (although now it is part of the Miccosukee tour package).

The man-made floating island in the Miccosukee-owned part of the Everglades

It was very peaceful and quiet, this little 'island' in the swamp. Copper-winged dragonflies buzzed in the air, purple flowers dotted the marshy ground, and that cool breeze warded off any mosquitoes or flies that might have wanted to bother us. Some funny signs captured my attention, and I enjoyed wandering around to find them all.

The gorgeous purple flowers in the Everglades - can you spot the dragonfly?
I don't care where the spider is from... squish it.

We only spent about 15 minutes exploring the island, and then it was back on the air boat and back to the tour bus. I sat next to Umberto on the way back and had a great view of the boat fan and the bubbling wake it left behind.

Bye bye, Everglades! I hope to see you again!

All too soon, we were back on the bus and headed home. I had such a fun morning today, and I completely encourage anyone who is in within driving distance of the Everglades to go out and really explore them and what they have to offer.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Aquarium of the Bay: San Francisco's Underwater Adventure


When I traveled to Seattle in the summer of 2011, I declined a visit to the city's aquarium. Looking back on that decision, I regret it, because the aquarium looks very pretty when I see photos of it online. I vowed not to make the same mistake again when I took a holiday to San Francisco last month. The "Aquarium of the Bay" is a small aquarium compared to most, but it promised a lot from what I saw on good ol' Pinterest, and I am happy to report that it did NOT fail to deliver!

The Aquarium of the Bay is extremely easy to access, as its entrance is located right at the mouth of Pier 39 on Fisherman's Wharf. You can buy tickets from a kiosk at the base of the escalator that leads up to the aquarium's elevated entrance, or you can buy tickets directly inside the aquarium before going on a self-guided tour through the building. Tickets cost $24.95 for adults, $14.95 for seniors and children aged 4-12, and families of four can get a deal at $68.00. I'm sure there are plenty of other deals, such as special rates for locals and tour packages, but it is pretty easy to navigate their website so I encourage you to check it out for yourself.

A vibrant starfish greets you in the first room of the Aquarium of the Bay

Some quick facts about the aquarium before I take you on my virtual tour: the aquarium boasts over 20,000 sea creatures, of which their most popular assortment of animals includes sharks and mantra rays. As you stroll through the aquarium, you will walk through two glass tunnels that cut through 700,000 gallons of salt water used to house an amazing variety of swimmers. The aquarium has built several nursery and animal husbandry programs since it opened back in 1996, so a lot of the species living in the tanks have been successfully bred in captivity and were never taken from the wild. (I know a lot of people are against aquariums due to the animals being caged. I don't know if it makes you feel better to know that they aren't missing the wide open ocean because they don't know any better? They also aren't being caught in nets and fried up, so that is a plus too, I suppose.)

I see you, little guy!

When you first walk into the aquarium's main building, you enter a series of showrooms that prepare you for what is to come later on in your aquarium tour. Glass floor to ceiling tanks showcase various exotic fish, like 'Nemo' and 'Dory' (clownfish and blue tang respectively). Sunfish, starfish, urchins, and other creatures adorn these tanks, giving visitors an up-close view of reef life. A tall, circular tank in the centre of one of the rooms features a glittering mass of sardines gliding together in the water.

One of the more brilliant fish tanks at the Aquarium of the Bay

One tank was a reality check for me, displaying what the ocean floor predominately looks like today. Sunken bottles, old tires, and other garbage had been integrated into this remake of the sea floor, with coral decorating the litter like rock candy, and fish flitting in and out of the debris. It was very sad, but also strangely pretty.

The garbage display tank - sad but still kind of pretty...

Past these two showrooms, you are greeted by an aquarium employee who offers to take your photo. You are set against a green screen wall, and the aquarium staff will later superimpose you in front of an image of either the Golden Gate Bridge or a scene from the aquarium. We decided to do a silly one, and the aquarium employee was extremely patient and accommodating for us. We couldn't wait to see the results!

Just beyond the photo booth, visitors will encounter an elevator that leads down into the heart of the aquarium. Our elevator operator was a twenty-something So-Cal surfer dude who recited his spiel on the way down both with boredom AND a sense of humour, something that was oddly impressive.

When the elevator doors parted, I was instantly in awe. The first room past the lift was dark, with tanks along the walls and one large ceiling to floor tank directly in the middle of the circular space. Each tank was softly lit, and inside them luminescent jellyfish floated dreamily through the waters. It was beautiful and mesmerizing: I could have stayed in that room all day.

Beautiful and mesmerizing jellyfish at the Aquarium of the Bay

And then, past this beautifully haunting room, was the first of the two underwater tunnels that I had been so excited to see. Standing inside the tunnel, you had an amazing view of sharks, mantra rays, sturgeon, and other large and small fish. Not only did you see them swimming alongside the tunnel, but quite often you got a really neat view of them as they swam right over top your head towards the opposite side.

A shark swimming right over our heads in the aquarium's tunnel

Very strategic lighting made the tunnels dark enough to see everything in the water beyond the glass, but also offered eerie effects, with green and purple lights highlighting certain areas. The only negative thing about the tunnel areas was that they got quite crowded and a little loud - no one wanted to move on and people tended to congest the area.

The tunnels could get crowded and loud at times.

However, I LOVED walking through the tunnels. As I said before, this aquarium is a small one in the grand scheme of things, so there wasn't a TON to see and do there. But the tunnels made it all worth while. We lingered a lot longer in the second tunnel, because we noticed a really fat manta ray just lounging on the bottom of the 'sea floor', and it seemed to be panting. The other manta rays around it were much flatter and much more active. An aquarium employee stopped by to see what we were all pointing at, and explained to us that this particular manta ray was pregnant and had been for a long time. (Manta rays gestate for about one year.) Her panting was hopefully a sign that she might be ready to go into labour, but the employee also noted that it could be a very long process.

My lovely friend Jennis surrounded by floating manta rays

The aquarium employee also said that they had been watching this particular ray in the hopes they would catch her during or shortly after her delivery, because she was in a tank with sharks. As the aquarium tries to replicate real ocean life as much as possible, she told us that newly born offspring can sometimes be eaten by other animals before the aquarium has a chance to send in a diver and remove the babies. Indeed, smaller sharks seemed to be congregating in the area near this poor pregnant manta ray. We were quite sad by this and stood there for about ten minutes, watching this fish puffing in and out, willing her to pop out her little mantra ray baby. It didn't happen and we had to move on.

Manta rays relaxing on the 'sea floor' of the tunnel aquarium

The tunnels and connecting rooms take you on a loop of the aquarium's lower level. Suddenly, you find yourself back at the elevator and zooming back up to the main floor. There you get to have a bit more of a hands-on experience with the aquarium's touch pools. A guide informs you of the proper manner in which to touch the young manta ray that is zooming through the shallow pool (one finger only, and only on the very tip of the ray's wing). Supposedly you can touch a shark too, but I didn't see one in the pool that day.

There is also a tide pool where you can one-finger touch starfish, urchins, and other tide pooly creatures.

I am a marine explorer and excited about it!

Not only are sea creatures featured in this part of the aquarium, but other reptiles and wildlife can be viewed. Frogs, snakes, and lizards creep around in their glass houses, peering out at you.

One part I didn't enjoy about the touch pool room was the dissection booth, where a young man was cutting open a squid to an audience of rapt children. Yes, it was educational, and yes it was interesting, and yes I caught myself listening to him explain how they created their ink, but I was sad to see that little guy getting all sliced up on a table. I hoped he had died from natural causes first.

The squid dissection in all its inky glory

Finally, we turned a corner and entered a room reserved solely for the river otters. This room made me sad. The male otter was just swimming in endless loops in a little pool, back and forth, back and forth. Then he'd stop, leap out, run to check on his mate, who was sleeping all curled up in her den, and then run back to the pool and just loop and loop and loop. I am no expert on river otters, but to me it seemed like a depressing thing and I felt quite sorry for him. If anyone knows more about the topic, please inform me if this is normal behaviour or not for an otter. I didn't stay long in that room.

After the river otters, the path leads you straight to the gift shop. We weren't in the market for aquarium souvenirs, but we did check out our photo booth results. It was hilarious, and even though we looked like total tourists, we bought it. I think it sums up our entire aquarium experience, don't you?

It is so fun to look ridiculous...

If you do find yourself hanging out on Pier 39 at Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco, I suggest you take a break from the hot sun and pedestrian chaos to explore the Aquarium of the Bay. It isn't too expensive, it is air conditioned, and it has some really beautiful features. Just go with the flow!