National Aquarium, Baltimore

After a morning spent travelling from the Philly ‘burbs and looking around Fort McHenry, we headed around Baltimore’s Inner Harbor to visit the National Aquarium.  That was really the focus of our trip to Baltimore as it was the thing the kids really wanted to do.  The Aquarium has timed entry so, when we reached the front of the ticket line before 3pm, we were issued tickets for a 4pm entry.  That gave us time to have a scout around that area of the Harbor.  We saw some interesting vessels moored up, including a large coastguard ship and a submarine, we saw ducks paddling around among flotillas of trash, and we saw some interesting buildings, including an old power plant that has been converted into a retail space.  It was a bookstore so we headed in there to benefit from their air conditioning and peruse books on the shelves.

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Before long it was time for us to return to the Aquarium and go in.  The timed entry system works well I think as it meant we did not waste time queuing and it meant the exhibit spaces of the Aquarium rarely felt too crowded.  We started at a large pool and the kids were instantly enchanted.  Our 10 year old is shark daft so he was super-duper-excited to see sharked slipping through the water.  There were also large rays covered in spotty patterns and we all squealed with glee when a large green turtle appeared and came to the surface.

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The touch pool was a huge hit with all of us.  There were the usual rays and horseshoe crabs for us to pet and we enjoyed that.  Another touch pool, however, was filled with charming little moon jellyfish.  We were told that we could stroke their curved bodies using two fingers.  It was marvelous.  I adore jellyfish anyway (it helps that I’ve never been stung by one) but I have only ever touched dead jellies.  I was smitten as soon as I felt the jellyfish, cool, rubbery, slippery, soft.  It was a delightful experience.

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Another favourite area of the Aquarium was a tank full of puffins.  Is there any other bird as cute as a puffin?  Despite living near some colonies of puffins in Scotland, I had sadly never managed to see any in close proximity.  I love their plump monochromatic bodies and those brightly striped beaks.  They did not disappoint with their antics either.  We saw them bobbing around in the water, swimming beneath the surface, and flapping their wings.  I could have watched them for ages and ages.  It made me wish I could have a pet puffin.

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There were, of course, tanks galore filled with interesting fish.  I was particularly drawn to all the brightly coloured fish.  My 8 year old was obsessed with all the different species of catfish because he is obsessed with cats of all kinds.  He was also drawn towards any of the over-sized fish, of which there were many.  Meanwhile, my 10 year old was all about the stars of the show: the sharks.  The Aquarium is renowned for its large shark tanks and we were not disappointed.  I failed to get a decent photo of any of the sharks but there were scores of large sharks in a vast, deep doughnut shaped tank that surrounded we visitors.  We could get right up to the glass so could feel almost immersed in the water with them and really appreciate the scale of the sharks.  There were nurse sharks resting on the floor of the tank, sand tiger sharks with their needle sharp teeth, sandbar sharks, large rays, and a largetooth sawfish which was an entirely bizarre looking beastie.

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There were areas dedicated to rainforest environments and to Australia.  The latter was a very small area and we did not manage to see all of the birds or the flying foxes that were apparently in the room.  We did, however, see some stunning birds with bold plumage and lots of interesting reptiles, including a freshwater crocodile.  The rainforest area was more successful in terms of spotting critters.  We even managed to go crazy bananas excited when we spotted a sloth among the foliage dangling from the ceiling.  Mr Pict is one of those arachnophobes who is fascinated by spiders so he enjoyed seeing the tarantula.  There were also some amazing birds in that area, including scarlet ibis and turquoise tanagers.

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Another room was just filled with tanks full of jellyfish.  Mr Pict and the Pictlings took a rest break while I spent time in there looking at all of the details of the jellies.  I love their variety.  Some had stubby little tentacles that looked a bit like crinkly coral or brains while others had long, thin tentacles that moved elegantly in the water.  I found it mesmerising to watch their bodies pulsate as they propelled themselves around the tanks.  I think I would find it quite soothing to have a tank full of jellyfish.

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The kids rallied when it came time to visit the dolphins.  They are a colony of Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphins who were all born in captivity.  I am not generally in favour of large marine mammals being kept in captivity but obviously it is not possible to release captive born dolphins into the wild.  There is also an argument that getting to see dolphins up close inspires people to care more for the ocean environment.  In any case, they had just completed their final show performance of the day so we wondered if they would not be keen on being on show for visitors.  However, they were swimming around being very playful, leaping, and chasing each other.  I think it must be pretty impossible not to love dolphins.

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It was evening by the time we emerged from the Aquarium but still very hot and humid.  We decided, therefore, to stop into a nearby ice cream parlour for some cold, sweet treats.  It was a delicious way to end a great day in Baltimore.

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Road Trip 2017 #6 – Point Dume and the Great Kite Caper

The third day of our vacation fell on a Saturday.  LA had been crowded and full of too much hustle and bustle even on weekdays so we decided to get away from the city and go for a nature ramble instead.  J and L suggested that we meet up with some friends of theirs and go for a hike which seemed like just the ticket.  Their friends in turn suggested a coastal hike so that we would benefit from the cooling sea breezes on such a hot day.  We, therefore, headed to Point Dume.  Yes, I too am disappointed it is not spelled Doom.

Point Dume is essentially a cliff in Malibu.  My middle two sons – the comic book geeks – were excited to learn that the promontory was the site of Tony Stark’s CGI mansion in the ‘Iron Man’ movies.  More excitingly for me, the adjacent beach was the location of the climactic scene in ‘The Planet of the Apes’.  Our hike took us along a pathway with a gentle ascent up to the promontory.  It offered us incredible views of the surrounding landscape, from the mansions behind us, to the beaches beyond, and the ocean stretching to the horizon.

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My boys and their wee cousin decided to give me palpitations by scampering down a sandy slope from a viewing platform to a cliff edge below.  Mr Pict and L followed them down to keep a closer eye on them but still my fear of heights was escalating to panic attack proportions watching them inch closer and closer to the edge.  I had visions of the whole cliff face sheering off.  I actually felt giddy and queasy and was glad when everyone decided to clamber back up to more solid, stable ground.  Meanwhile, to try and distract me from the potential for Doom at Dume, the friends pointed out various landmarks in the distance and told me about the grey whales they often see passing in the winter months.   I have never seen grey whales before so that would have been a superb experience.  We did, however, see a pod of dolphins arching in and out of the water and there were sea-lions with their pups galore piled up on the rocks just below us – though looking straight down at them was also triggering my fear of heights.

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Thankfully and finally everyone was ready to move on from the cliff top and we began to snake our way back down on sandy, pebble strewn pathways past cacti in bloom and darting lizards.  We headed in the direction of Zuma Beach.  L and I peeled off to take the gaggle of kids to the beach while the other adults headed off in search of lunch – since we had all entirely failed to pack one.  The kids did not complain as they ended up munching pizza and giant sandwiches on the beach.  You may recall from many a post, however, that I loathe sand.  Between heights and sand, I was having a nerve-shredding day.  Since I was hungry, I tried my best to eat a sandwich despite my 20+ year policy of never eating at the beach.  I regretted even trying.  Not only was I wincing with every bite, expecting my teeth to touch grains of sand, but a ruddy great seagull came swooping down on my head, battered into my skull, and stole my entire sandwich.  I am, therefore, returning wholeheartedly to my commitment to never eat on a beach.

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Despite the sand and seagull thing, we had a wonderful time at the beach.  Zuma Beach is clean and relatively quiet and the boys could go out quite far into the sea while still being at paddling height.  They were loving frolicking in the waves as it was but it made them enjoy the experience even more when a slick and stealthy sea-lion bobbed up between them as it skirted the shoreline.  There were also several pods of dolphins who swam past.  Sadly none were doing aquatic acrobatics but it was magical to see them so close.  We also saw pelicans in flight and built sand sculptures of sea creatures and the kids went scouting for seaweed to outline them.  Little cousin W also enjoyed burying my oldest son in the sand which was all fun and games until a lifeguard didn’t notice him in the sand and stood on him.  Crushed by a lifeguard at the beach.  I don’t think that ever happened on ‘Baywatch’.

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Late in the afternoon as the wind picked up, J decided to get a kite out for the kids to play with.  All was going swimmingly until the kite collided with the telephone wire going into the lifeguard tower and got completely snagged.  Oh dear.  Obviously we had to attempt to retrieve it but it was significantly taller than even the tallest member of our group.  The only option, therefore, was to MacGyver some sort of tool that could be used to unhook the kite from the wire.  Engineering skills were sorely lacking but a tool was nevertheless created.  Mr Pict then plonked our 10 year old onto his shoulders and our son then used the tool to try and catch the kite string and move it off the wire.  They tried different combinations of children on adult shoulders.  At one point, they even had the 5 year old on top of the 10 year old on top of Mr Pict and still the kite remained resolutely stuck to the wire.  Admitting that the tool was probably not going to work, it was abandoned and more simple methods were resorted to – lobbing shoes at the kite in the hopes of knocking it off the wire.  This whole escapade went on for quite some time.  An embarrassingly long time actually.  People strolling on the beach stopped to spectate.  People turned their deck chairs to face the action instead of the sea.  We were their entertainment.  The pressure was on to actually succeed with that many witnesses to the caper.  It got to the stage where other people were volunteering their shoes, thinking their footwear was more aerodynamic or would pack more of a wallop when it collided with the kite.  There was a near constant barrage of shoes soaring across or just below the kite but the odd one that made contact did little to budge it.  Finally, some off-duty military men offered to help.  Maybe it was their army training that did the job, maybe their shoes were the perfect torpedoes for kites, maybe the kite had been budged little by little so that it was finally ripe for the plucking, or perhaps it was just lucky timing, but within minutes of joining in the fray, these chaps had successfully walloped the kite in such a way that it bounced off the wire and was then rapidly caught by our 11 year old before the wind caught it and took it.  Everyone on the beach burst into spontaneous applause, whistles and cheers.  We didn’t provide an encore.

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