Be a kid again on a winter excursion to Albuquerque’s BioPark

Sharks and other pelagic fish captivate spectators in front of the glass wall of the shark tank at the Albuquerque Aquarium. Photo by Cheryl Fallstead
Sharks and other pelagic fish captivate spectators in front of the glass wall of the shark tank at the Albuquerque Aquarium. Photo by Cheryl Fallstead
A catchy syncopated tune dances between my ears and I hear Ringo Starr sing his song: “I’d like to be under the sea in an octopus’s garden in the shade…” We desert-dwellers are a long way from the sea, but we can still watch an octopus engage in its curiously intellectual antics.

I’m talking about the Aquarium in Albuquerque’s Bio-Park, a perfect place on a winter’s day to take the kids — or to be a kid yourself…again.

A short walk, down a ramp, puts you in front of a 285,000-gallon, saltwater tank. It’s just like being on the ocean floor…in an octopus’s garden… without getting your feet wet. This is the shark tank, the largest and perhaps most popular exhibit in the aquarium. For good reason. Among the hundreds of fish representing 75 distinct species on the other side of the glass wall are sand tiger, black tip, nurse, and zebra sharks swimming lazily along. They have to swim to push water over their gills to breathe. If they stop swimming, they suffocate.

Other residents of the shark tank are long-jawed barracudas, pancake-flat stingrays, and playful sea turtles. Nearby, in a exhibit replicating the inside of the wreck of the San Esteban are green moray eels, which like to be hand-fed at suppertime. Only caretakers use tongs to distribute the food. Eels can’t tell the difference between a finger and a fingerling.

The Albuquerque Aquarium has orchestrated exhibits tracing a drop of water from the Colorado source of the Rio Grande to the deep oceans. You’ll be guided from the Rio Grande to a New Mexican trout stream, then take a look at river otters, a salt marsh along the Gulf Coast, and the surf zone. You’ll glimpse life in Atlantic and Pacific coral reef displays and watch schools of pulsating jelly fish that look like buttons and marshmallows.

There’s the South Pacific exhibit of anemones, mollusks, sea stars, and fish whose colors come in myriad spots, stripes, and patches. Color may seem extravagant and random, but the bright colors — which fish can see — play a critical role in defense, predation, and social interactions.

By the time you’re finished, you’ll have a better understanding not only of fresh-water fish and marine organisms, but you’ll have had a chance to see the connectedness of different ecosystems and how one flows seamlessly into another.

If you’re up for it, there are two other areas of the BioPark that will bring the kid out in you. I’m talking about the Children’s Fantasy Garden and the Railroad Garden. You’ll think you’re part of Gulliver’s Travels or Alice In Wonderland.

Close to the Aquarium is the Children’s Fantasy Garden, where like Alice eating from the right and left side of the mushroom, as directed by the hookahsmoking caterpillar, everything is hugely bigger… or maybe it’s just because you’ve become remarkably smaller.

You slink past a 14-foot-tall topiary dragon, guarding castle gates and slip down a rabbit hole, being wary of the six-foot-long earthworms burrowing along. Among nine-foot high potted plants, watered with an 11-foot-tall watering can, you’ll have to keep an eye out for six-foot-long ants and giant bumblebee. You’ll navigate the squishy floor of a 42-foot-diameter pumpkin as you duck around seeds and under tendrils hanging down. You’ll marvel at the enormous acorns and pinecones in the seedling forest and gaze wideeyed at potatoes, onions, and carrots only Alice could lift — assuming, of course, she’d eaten the right piece of mushroom.

There’s purpose here and not just fun. The Children’s Fantasy Garden encourages hands-on, experiential learning about plants and animals in sync with them — from a kid’s imaginative perspective. Education, after all, is why the BioPark is here.

Next, step over to the Railroad Garden, and you’ll be certain you’re in the Court of Lilliput. What’s before you is a G-gauge garden railroad, about twice the size of your old Lionel train. It has two, 400-footlong loops of track that cross arched trestle, truss, and box-girder bridges. Classic steam and modern diesel engines pull trains past an 1800s-style village with miniature houses — some still under construction — centered around la plazuela. There are factories, farms, stations, a roundhouse — and a coal tipple that would be right at home in Madrid’s coal mines. A trolly runs around the village. Everything built by BioPark staff and volunteers from the New Mexico Garden RailRoaders Club is meticulously detailed and scaled to exact dimensions. The only thing missing are the Lilliputians.

If you think it would be fun to ride one of the trains, you can do that. Not the G-gauge, of course. Near the river side of the Children’s Fantasy Garden is the Rio Grande Line running the Thunderbird Express. This is a narrow-gauge railroad, about 80 percent the width of a standard-gauge track.

The Thunderbird Express travels one and a half miles along the Rio Grande bosque connecting the Aquarium and Botanic Garden with the zoo. It’s a great way to rest in the middle of a busy day or relax before the long ride south to Las Cruces.

The Albuquerque BioPark is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Tickets for New Mexico residents are $4.50 for seniors, $9 for adults 13 to 64, and $4 for children. Tickets for the Thunderbird Express are $3 for adults and $2 for children. Thunderbird Express trains run Tuesday to Sunday from 10:15 a.m. to 3:45 p.m. The Garden Railroad trains operate Wednesdays through Sundays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

For more detailed information in planning your visit, go to cabq.gov. Click on the Explore tab and the ABQ BioPark.