INDIANAPOLIS - The sea is closer to Bloomington-Normal than you think - three hours east on Interstate 74 to be exact.
Indianapolis Zoo opened Oceans, a $9.5 million permanent exhibit that features the world's largest shark "touch tank" during the Memorial Day weekend.
Oceans also features sea animals like penguins, polar bears and sea lions. They're among 360 different species of animals at the zoo. The total includes 14 endangered and three threatened species.
The Indianapolis Zoo, which attracts a million visitors annually, is located near the city's downtown in White River State Park, Indiana's only urban park. The complex includes White River Gardens, a 3.3-acre area that boasts more than 1,000 plant species, and a conservatory where visitors are surrounded by the fluttering wings of thousands of colorful butterflies.
In addition to the aquarium, the zoo also has African animals, including lions, tigers and elephants. Among them are two juvenile elephants born in 2005 and 2006.
A variety of programs offer close, personal encounters with the animal kingdom. Pet a shark, feed a giraffe or touch a dolphin. Zoo officials hope the experiences create a bond between humans and animals to raise concern about their long-term survival.
"That is the name of the game; that is the way to make an impression," said zoo communications coordinator Sarah Burnette. "I guarantee when someone takes a piece of sweet potato and feels the breath of that giraffe on their hand, they are going to care about giraffes for the rest of their lives."
Visitors to the Oceans exhibit can reach into a "touch pool" to pet dog sharks. They appear every bit as fierce as other sharks, but dog sharks are gentle. No need to count your fingers afterward.
"We don't anticipate any problems," joked Burnette, who moved to Indianapolis after Hurricane Katrina roared through New Orleans, where she also worked at the zoo.
The touching area is about 3 feet deep so children can take part.
As guests enter the building, glassed exhibits lend a glimpse into the world of moon jellyfish, moray eels and bonnet sharks, which look similar to hammerhead sharks.
After visiting the touch tank, exit over a glass bridge between two walls and observe penguins swimming underwater to the each side and below your feet. Pause at enclosures which house swimming polar bears and sea lions.
"On a hot summer's day, it's a pretty good place to cool your heels," Burnette said.
The zoo's most popular attractions are in the marine complex. They include dolphins, which perform daily in the Dolphin Adventure Theater. They also can be viewed during regular operating hours in the Dome. The Zoo's Dolphin In-Water Adventure offers visitors a chance to spend a half hour wading in a shallow pool with dolphins while trainers feed them and use hand signals to give directions. Cost is $185, less if you are a zoo member. Registration is required at (317) 630-2076.
The butterfly exhibit is another favorite. Watch specimens from the United States, Central America, South America and Africa emerge from their chrysalids and fly about in the conservatory around the guests. Up to 1,500 are in the air at a time.
"When it's warm out, the butterflies are really active," Burnette said. "When that is in full throttle, you walk in the door, and there is movement all around you."
The butterflies are on display each year through Sept. 4.
Elephant Awareness Week from June 23 to July 1 is another major draw. Local celebrities, including race-car drivers, help with bathing and other chores. The seven elephants, including the two juveniles, live among rhinos, giraffes and African wild dogs.
The zoo is involved in critical conservation efforts. Twenty-two baby Jamaican iguanas, the second rarest lizard in the world, were hatched there. Their numbers more than doubled the population of the rare lizards living in North American zoos. Only about 100 still survive in the wild.
White River State Park itself is worth a visit. Located in the shadow of the impressive skyline of Indianapolis, the park has trails for walking and biking, the Indiana State Museum, a six-story IMAX Theater, the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art, the NCAA Hall of Champions and the Congressional Medal of Honor Memorial. Over summer months, the park hosts events ranging from an Indian Market and Taste of Freedom to the Indy Jazz Fest.
The zoo offers "Animals and All That Jazz," featuring many of Indianapolis' super jazz musicians, every Thursday night after regular hours from July 12 to Aug. 6. The music is free with regular admissions. Supper is extra if you want it.
If you go
Summer hours: Through Sept. 3, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays -Thursdays, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Fridays-Sundays
Cost: Adults, $13.50; children 2-12 and seniors 62 and over, $8.50. Some shows require additional charges.
More information: Get directions, more information on zoo attractions and view web cams of animals, including rhinos and walruses, at www.indyzoo.com . Phone zoo hotline at (317) 630-2001.