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Escape to warn, tropical seas at The Virginia Aquarium

Ready for warm seas and beach-like weather? In just over an hour’s drive you can be basking in warmth and connecting with marine life at The Virginia Aquarium.

But before you head indoors, pause of for a look at he swimming harbor seals.

This winter’s temporary exhibit, set to open Jan. 20, is “Here Be Dragons.” With hands-on activities and interactive displays of mythical dragons and real-life lizards, visitors can explore the cultural connection people have with dragons, said Matthew Klepeisz, public relations manager for the aquarium.

To learn about local marine life, the Chesapeake Bay Touch Pool was recently renovated to accommodate those who really want to get close to nature.

Manned mostly by educated docents, the touch pool allows people to feel horseshoe crabs and whelks. They also inform visitors about the lifestyle of hermit crabs and spider crabs.

A must-see at the aquarium is the Chesapeake Light Tower Aquarium where graceful turtles, loggerhead, green, and endangered Kemp's ridley sea turtles swim with sea life found within 15 miles of the Atlantic Coast.

A favorite with children — and adults — is the ray touch pool. Rays swim around in a somewhat shallow pool while visitors reach in to touch them.

The aquarium also shows sea life from outside the region.

The Indonesian Volcanic Island features the largest lizard in the world, Komodo Dragons. Flying around the exhibit are colorful Indonesian finches. Children can crawl into a special viewing area with an acrylic dome to see the animals up close.

Still feeling a chill?

Then head to the humid climate of the Malaysian Peat Swamp. Thunder and dripping water show off Southeast Asia’s unusual animals including snakehead fish, the Malayan leaf frog and a rare Tomistoma crocodile.

The Mediterranean Sea has a reputation for warmth and the exhibit features seahorses, cuttlefish, cobras, scorpions and hedgehogs. The hedgehogs can be hard to see so look closely.

The Red Sea aquarium is a place where visitors linger. The 8,000-gallon tank is filled with delicate live coral. A 40-foot tunnel surrounded by a water tank shows off beautiful sea life, including eagle rays that can have a 6-foot wingspan. All species swim along with a zebra shark.

Step away from the water and take in Whales Voice of the Sea, which is not sea exhibit but rather a place to hear the sounds of various whales including the humpback, sperm, blue, Baird’s beaked, killer and beluga. You’ll have a chance to hear the distinct call of each whale and make your own call. Interviews with scientists teach about conservation issues to keep this important sea life going.

It is easy to sit down and take a break with the recently renovated Virginia Aquarium National Geographic 3-D Theater. The 6-foot screen shows everything from documentaries to Hollywood produced movies.

If you yearn to leave the confines of the aquarium for a real sea adventure, consider Whales and Wildlife Sea Adventure boat trips that run Wednesday-Sunday until March 4. Two federal holiday trips are Jan. 15 and Feb. 19. For more information on departures and pricing, check out virginiaaquarium.com/learn/boat-trips

Want to go?

The Virginia Aquarium and Marine Science Center

Address: 717 General Booth Blvd. in Virginia Beach

Phone: 385-FISH

Hours: 9 a.m.- 5 p.m. Sunday-Saturday

Admission ranges from $29.95 to $19.95 depending on movie packaging and age. $2 discount for active duty military, retired veterans and dependents with military ID.

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