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SEA DADDY DRAGON IN ACTION!
At the Tampa Bay Aquarium

Something unusual is happening at the Florida Aquarium in downtown Tampa. We are in the "Dragons Down Under" Gallery with its display of sea-horses and rare sea-dragons from off the coast of South Australia. I am standing in front of the leafy sea-dragon tank, and our aquarium docent, Linda, says, "Keep an eye on that guy…see the one with the ballooning belly? He's heavily pregnant, and looks really peaky. He's dragging along the floor too. An almost sure-fire indication that he's about to spill his babies…"

"Hold on a sec," I interrupt. "Did you say 'he'?"

"Uh-huh!" She nods. "Leafy sea-dragon males have little brood pouches around their tummies, and after mating, the female deposits a batch of about 250 eggs into these sacs. Three to six weeks later, he gives birth, and may actually undergo labour pains." She looks again at the little sea-dragon, who is by now wearing a visibly strained expression. He is fluttering his leafy limbs and hovering near the floor of the tank. "Hey look, there he goes…" I peer closer, and sure enough there are several woozy little sea-dragons, transparent and less than a centimetre in size, fanning out and flickering around their Dad.

Besides gender-bending breeding habits, sea-horses and sea-dragons look like the result of some bizarre evolutionary prank. Although they are appealing little creatures, they are a mishmash of bits and pieces borrowed from other species: leafy sea-dragons, (as their name suggests), have leafy tendrils hanging off their frames, aardvark snouts, horses' heads grafted onto a spiny crocodile bodies and kangaroo pouches.

Sea-horses are much the same, except that they are prettily attired in 'armoured' suits of yellow, red, brown-or in spotted and banded designer wear-and have long monkey-like tails with which they anchor themselves to coral or vegetation at the bottom of the sea.

To protect themselves from predators both species are capable of lightning quick changes of colour. They neither look, nor swim like fish as they have no tail fins. Instead, they glide upright and dignified, like knights moving smoothly across a chess-board. Also, as Linda points out, their lizard-like eyes work independently of each other. "One eye could be on the look out for potential enemies," she says, "while the other one is scouting for food."

Mr. Leafy Sea Dragon, is still in the throes of birthing, but his tummy is slightly less distended than before. After the entire batch has been expelled, his duty done, he will take off and leave the babies to fend for themselves. Despite this rather cavalier attitude towards their offspring, sea horses are really romantics at heart. They mate for life, wooing each other by exhibiting chameleon-like changes of colour and engaging in synchronised swimming performances. Their courtship is consummated when the moon is full (aaah!), and, shortly thereafter, Dad becomes delicately enceinte. Mum, meanwhile, is free to gallivant and do her own sexy-flexi thing. Throw in a moonstruck partner who takes on child-bearing responsibilities…well, what more could a gal wish for? If there is such a thing as reincarnation, I'm coming back as a female leafy sea-dragon or a cute lady sea-horse in my next life.

Moments later I'm gawking at vampire bats, poison-dart frogs (very pretty varicoloured little critters), emperor scorpions and red-legged tarantulas. A reticulated python flicks his tongue and lazily surveys his audience, while a young woman volunteer inside the enclosure, nonchalantly steps over his reptilian coils, to polish the glass windows. "Does the Aquarium hand out medals for valour?" I ask our guide. She laughs. "Our "Monty" python is well-fed; he's not interested in squeezing pretty girls!"

The Wetlands gallery is enclosed in a vast glass-dome, and the vegetation (real trees in some instances) is artfully designed to provide a comfortable habitat for roseate spoonbills, blue herons and white ibis. I catch sight of a great horned owl, but he is too well camouflaged among the branches of his resting spot for a good photo op. Instead I zero in with my video camera on a river otter who is putting on a show-stopping performance - diving, twisting, zooming upwards and occasionally pausing to check whether he is getting the attention he deserves.

Probably the most spectacular gallery at the Aquarium is the Coral Reefs Gallery. An artificial reef housed in a 500,000 gallon tank displays an intriguing diversity of inhabitants, among them squirrel-fish, angelfish, butterfly fish and flame-fish. We pause in front of the 14 foot high panoramic window and I am startled as a diver in a wetsuit and flippers emerges from behind a reef and waves to us, his cleaning tools in hand. "Another volunteer," explains Linda. "One of sixty or more who donate their time and effort to work at the aquarium year round." She pauses and chuckles. "In fact a few months ago, a couple of our volunteers divers opted to get married in that tank. As they were exchanging their vows, a moray eel swam right between them. The next day the newspapers printed the photograph, with the caption: "That's A-Moray!"

© Margaret Deefholts
Email: deefholts@gmail.com

IF YOU GO:

Best Time of Year:

Between September and March. During the summer months of April to August, temperatures in Tampa Bay soar to uncomfortable levels. They also experience tropical downpours and spectacular thunderstorms. One restaurant I dropped into called "Thunder Bay" had nothing to do with the Canadian city, but was descriptive of Tampa's tempestuous summer weather when the great god Thor hurls spears of lightning across the Bay. I suggested a change of name to "Bay-side Thor-o-Fare."

The Florida Aquarium
701 Channelside Drive,
Tampa. Florida 33602
Ph: 1-813-273-4000
Open daily (except for Thanksgiving and Christmas) from 9.30 am to 5.00 pm The Aquarium is located in downtown Tampa. Visit their website at www.flaquarium.org for further information on admission prices, special events and details/photographs of exhibits in their galleries.