Museum of Natural History

Our 14 year old had some options for a Biology assignment. I was pretty keen on a project involving writing about unusual diseases that appear in our family history but he chose to undertake one that involved a trip to a Natural History Museum. There is one close to home, in Philadelphia, which would have been more straightforward. However, he requested that we take a trip to New York to visit the museum there, which we had visited as part of the boys’ first ever trip to NYC back in February of 2014.

We had not been to NYC for years so we decided it could form the basis of a fun day trip. We formulated a plan for the day that we had to throw away the evening before the trip when the 14 year old fell of his skateboard and badly sprained his ankle. Since he was still pleading to go and given we had already booked and paid for the admission tickets, we decided to forge ahead with the trip to the museum but to junk all of the other plans for the day.*

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One area of focus for the assignment was early humans so we headed to that section first. I took a DNA test a few years ago as a means of making contact with other family historians researching the same families. It has led to all sorts of interesting interactions but there was really nothing interesting about my DNA. It proved I was as boring genetically as I was on paper. The only unexpected find was that I have a smattering of Neanderthal DNA. Until then, I had not known that Neanderthal DNA can still be identified at detectable levels in contemporary humans. I guess now I know where my massive forehead comes from.

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There was a special exhibition about sharks so we decided to boost our tickets for entry to that gallery. You might recall that my 14 year old and I are a wee bit obsessed with sharks. I cannot say that we especially learned anything new about sharks but we appreciated the life size models as we could really grasp the scale of some of the less familiar sharks. We also had fun with the megalodon models.

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I am sure that many visitors to natural history museums spend a lot of time among the dinosaur fossils. While I am certainly no dino nerd, I have never outgrown that childhood fascination with these ancient beasts. One of the things my son was writing about in his assignment was fossil evidence of dinosaurs being feathered so we particularly honed in on the exhibits relevant to that topic. We also made sure to visit all of our favourite dinosaurs – mine is a triceratops in case you are interested. We visited the Ice Age mammals too. As much as I know it would be wholly unethical to do so, I do think it would be marvelous to resurrect mammoths from extinction.

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Other sections of the museum we visited included the Central American gallery and the meteorite and gem sections. You will observe our family tradition of taking photos of ourselves in the same poses as sculptures. My 16 year old loves sparkly shiny things so has always enjoyed that section and my husband is an astronomy geek so he loves getting up close to space rocks. He was especially enthralled by a case containing three chunks of meteor taken from the surface of the moon.

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Unfortunately the limping 14 year old was starting to feel the strain of his busted ankle so we could not keep forging on through all of the other areas of the museum. We felt satisfied that we had covered a lot of ground, however, so left feeling fulfilled.

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And now we need to return to NYC at some point soon to do all of the things we had planned on doing that day but didn’t manage to achieve.

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*The reason the 14 year old is in the majority of the photos is because they will be used to illustrate his assignment and not because he is more biddable than the others when it comes to having his photo taken.

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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Of Sharks and Super Bowls

We Picts had a very busy weekend: on Saturday we went to the Adventure Aquarium in Camden, New Jersey, and yesterday we watched the Super Bowl – a first for the kids and I.

It was a very breezy and very chilly journey across the Delaware into New Jersey – with ice forming on the river – so we were all very glad to get through the doors of the Aquarium and into the galleries.  It has been a while since most of us visited an aquarium (Deep Sea World in North Queensferry, Fife, back in April 2012) but our 9 year old visited the Adventure Aquarium last year on a school trip and had been eager for the rest of us to see it.  I cannot say that it represented good value for money because, quite frankly, what aquarium ever is?  Along with zoos, they are always startlingly expensive for family days out.  That is one of the reasons why our visits to them are so few and far between.  However, this was a really very good aquarium and we really enjoyed our time there.

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We started off our trip with the stingray pool.  We were allowed to stick our hands into the water and feel the rays as they swam past, their wings flapping in and out of the surface.  The kids were absolutely delighted and loved experiencing the texture of the rays, enjoyed their splashing, found their smile-like expressions charming.  The little rays sped around the tank and had to be touched and petted as they darted past but the large rays – including one patterned like a leopard – were slower and were, as a result, more interactive when they approached the children.

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We had pre-booked a slot in the 4D cinema so that was where we headed next.  Normally we would not add on anything extra on top of such an expensive day out but our second grader is learning about dinosaurs at school at present so we splurged on some tickets to see a show about prehistoric sea creatures.  It was a particularly high quality 4D show.  There were puffs of air and splashes of water to co-ordinate with the film, of course, but what really made it so impressive was the rendering of the visuals and the educational content.  It followed the story of a trio of primitive dolphins – mother, daughter and son – based on the fossil record and showed their interaction with their environment and other creatures in their ecosystem.  The 3D elements were really well handled too which made it entertaining as well as absorbing.

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After the obligatory pretzel break, we wandered into the hippo area.  I have never seen hippos in an aquarium before so that was entirely new and it was interesting to see how they responded to a more aquatic environment having mainly seen them in primarily land based enclosures in zoos.  How they behaved was to laze around in the water.  One was entirely submerged, just raising its nostrils out of the water for long enough to take a breath, and the other was floating just on the surface.  We could view them from above the surface level and also descend some steps so that we could see into the tank below the water level.  Doing so enabled us to see all the fish who were nibbling at the hippos, giving them a clean up.  I wish they had been a bit more active – secretly I had hoped for a synchronised swimming routine – but it was completely cool to see them.

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Next up were jellyfish.  I have a thing for jellyfish as I find them very aesthetically pleasing and also very hypnotic to watch.  I actually draw jellyfish quite often because I find them so appealing.  Of course, I have never been stung by one.  That might change my view.  I could have stood watching the jellies in their tanks for ages but Mr Pict and the kids had moved on long before me and I had to catch up with them.  There were also tanks containing nautilises (nautilii?) and these armoured beasties that looked like giant slaters (woodlice) which were cool.  There was also an octopus who had his tentacles and their suckers pressed up against the glass so we could see how they rippled and moved.  His body was wrapped around a lidded jar.  Knowing that octopii are smart and enjoy problem-solving activities, I expect he had been given the jar to open as a stimulating exercise.  I should have a pet octopus so that he can provide assistance any time I cannot get a jar open.

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The major feature of the aquarium is a massive shark tank.  It is absolutely teeming with sharks of several varieties.  Mr Pict was initially huffing about hammerheads having been used in the advertising but not being in evidence but then an adult and a juvenile hammerhead glided past and he was proven wrong.  I think he wanted to adopt the baby one.  There were also fish and two large turtles in the tank.  There was a short tunnel that led through the tank and allowed us to see sharks swimming over the top of us but better than that were just the huge glass walls where we could stand, transfixed, watching all of the sharks swimming around.  Whereas other aquariums we have been to had several small windows for spectators to peek through, the scale of the tank windows meant that not only could dozens of people view at the same time but that we could study the same shark moving for longer rather than just catching a glimpse of it as it drifted past a smaller aperture.  It was definitely the best shark tank I have seen.

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Another area contained tanks filled with varieties of turtles and other reptiles.  The animals were all very active and we enjoyed seeing them moving around and interacting with each other.  There were also two massive alligators, one of whom was underwater and one standing on a platform out of the water.  The underwater one was right up against the glass so the kids could get up really close to it and study the detail of its skin, claws, eyes and teeth which was a pretty cool opportunity, especially so soon after seeing some alligators in the wild.  We also saw some really big lobsters, different varieties from the ones we normally see in tanks in supermarkets and restaurants.  From conversations my kids have had with the fishmongers in stores, they knew that these lobsters had to be pretty advanced in age.  There was also a tank containing seahorses.  I defy anyone to not love seahorses.  They are so peculiar, so delicate, so pretty and so adorable that it is impossible not to find them compelling and magical.  We watched transfixed as their little translucent fins vibrated to propel them from one piece of seaweed to the other, as their spiral tails grabbed and wound around the weeds as anchors and as they dangled, sometimes upside down, in the water.  Completely gorgeous.

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Another touchy-feely tank provided the boys with the opportunity to interact with small sharks (dogfish) and horseshoe crabs.  The boys got a bit irritated that the sharks were determined to loiter in the middle of the tank.  They tried to think about what might tempt the sharks to come towards the side of the tank, inspire them to quit malingering, but I am sure those sharks are used to every trick in the book.  They did not budge.  So the kids had to content themselves with touching the horseshoe crabs who, unlike their shark chums, seemed to enjoy scuttling around the circumference of the tank.  They are fascinating creatures.  Living fossils.  Their carapace is like a shield and then underneath they are full of bits and pieces.  It is like lifting the cover off of a sleek electronic device and seeing all of the messy components underneath.  They are local to the Mid Atlantic shore so I would love to encounter them in the wild some time.

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There was a final touch and feel tank on the top floor of the aquarium.  This one contained mainly invertebrates.  My 9 year old had been raving about sea apples since his school trip visit so his brothers loved finally being able to feel one for themselves.  It was more velvety than an anemone but still had that gelatinous quality to it.  The sea apple and the other sea cucumbers that formed part of the tank display were all very attractive, with bright colours and vivid patterns.  There were also shrimp and fish in the tank and our 7 year old was delighted when a fish swam onto his submerged hand and had a bit of an exploratory nibble at him.  In a separate tank, there was also a very large, powerful looking blue lobster that the kids could touch, as he had his claws banded, and another tank containing a type of lobster than just looks like a lobster tail.  Interesting evolutionary choice, to look like your cousin’s butt.  Must work though.  There was also a tank filled with scorpion fish.

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Our trip finished with amphibians.  We saw Surinam toads which are entirely weird specimens and not very bonnie.  They look as if they have been hit with a mallet and then, of course, there is the fact that the young toadlets burst out of the skin of their mother’s backs.  I have given birth in different ways, none of them genteel or relaxing, but I am glad I was spared the fate of the Surinam toad.  There were also tanks containing large frogs with bulging eyes, bright green tree frogs, tanks of brightly coloured poison dart frogs and a tank containing a bright red frog so tiny he could have fitted on a grain of rice.  Isn’t the diversity of nature just incredible?  And there were axolotl which I love partly because they are such complete weirdos and partly because I just love the word axolotl.

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While Saturday was all about going somewhere new, yesterday was all about trying something new.  The boys and I have never watched the Super Bowl so we decided to make an attempt on an American tradition.  I don’t like sport of any kind and – some Olympic events withstanding – never watch sport on the telly and it looks like our sons take after me in that regard rather than after my husband.  Nevertheless, we decided to suck it up for the sake of experiencing another slice of Americana.  For us it was all about the food.  I conducted some research among my American friends on Facebook and decided that traditional Super Bowl fare would include things like hot dogs, chips and dips and wings.  I actually made the hot dogs for lunch, except my 9 year old and I don’t eat hot dogs so we had off-theme vegetable samosas.  However, at some point during the first half of the game, our Super Bowl feast was ready to be devoured and it did indeed include chicken pieces tortilla chips and various dips.  Our telly is in the living room and I was nervous about letting the kids picnic in a carpeted room, especially given that they were drinking root beer as a treat, so warned and nagged them to be careful.  In the end, however, it was me who caused a cleaning commotion as I knocked over a bottle of beer.  Thus my kids were given the opportunity to evidence that they understood the word “irony”.

I was made to understood that part of the tradition was to watch the half-time show and commercials, that even people who stay away from the game emerge from other rooms to gather around the goggle box to watch the adverts.  I think maybe in my mind it had,  therefore, been built up to be a bigger attraction than it turned out to be.  I was underwhelmed.  I think also that I do not watch enough TV (and even when I do it tends to be streamed) so I am not familiar enough with the brands to “get” the gist of the advert or spot a recurring theme or understand an allusion.  I cannot even recall the majority of the adverts.  I know that there was an awkward Fiat advert involving a viagra pill which was witty but also challenging to explain to a gang of small children looking for an interpretation (“It’s a medicine that increases blood flow in parts of the body so it has made the car strong”.  Explanation thankfully accepted) and there was one from an insurance company I think that was all about childhood disease and death.  Bit of a buzzkill for a mob of small boys high on root beer and munching on chicken goujons.  None of us are Katy Perry fans, not at all, but I have to admit that the half time musical turn was watchable (maybe less listenable) for all its well-choreographed razzmatazz.

So that was the food and the entertainment.  As to the game …. well, it was a sports match involving kicking and throwing a ball about and trying to get more points than the other team.  I don’t understand the rules and nor did I care to engage enough to learn the rules.  My husband was able to explain to the kids that X was a good throw and Y was a bad tackle but it was all Greek to me.  Except even I could tell that it was a bad decision, in the closing minutes, for the Seahawks player to attempt a glory touchdown instead of passing off the ball.  And if even I can tell that then you can be assured it was a really terrible decision to make that play.  So I have watched a Super Bowl.  I can tick that tradition off my list now.  Done it.  I think that may have been not only my first Super Bowl but also my last.