Snorkel or take a dive at the Audubon Aquarium, and play with pe - KPLC 7 News, Lake Charles, Louisiana

Snorkel or take a dive at the Audubon Aquarium, and play with penguins!

The Audubon Aquarium is offering the chance to jump into a tank filled with stingrays and fish, now that visitors can snorkel or scuba dive in the new Mayan exhibit.

For kids, getting to see the volunteer and staff scuba divers in the aquarium can be the highlight of a field trip. But to divers, the real fun can come from swimming through a fever of stingrays to see the kids staring into the underwater world.

"Our volunteers come in on a weekly basis and they volunteer their time and help us with feeding and things, and we wanted to be able to share that with our customers and our guests who come in to visit. So this is something brand new for us," said Dive Program Manager Desiree Bell.

Any certified scuba diver now has the chance to dive into the Caribbean tan, part of the new Mayan Reef Exhibit. Snorkelers as young as 8, with a guardian, can swim along the surface.

"I love it. It's so much fun. So much fun," said Bell.

Before jumping in with the friendly yellowtail snappers, blue tangs, and gray angel fish, there's a conservation and animal lesson.

"The barbs are intact on the animals that are in here. However, unless you're giving them a big old bear hug they're not going to really hurt you," said Bell.

No bear hugs. It's one of many things to remember underwater and to pass on.

"Allowing guests to come in and submerge themselves in the exhibit, I hope that they walk away feeling like they got to be apart of something bigger than themselves, and I hope that they share the information and knowledge that they got with people that they know," said Bell.

One can also claim "learning" is the reason they want to experience the aquarium's other wild encounter. One of the same penguins people go crazy for in the South African exhibit can waddle around in a private room with up to six people.

"It's an educational experience mostly, but it's also a great experience for people who just want to get close to a penguin who have dreamed of that their whole lives, and we do get a lot of people like that. Most of them are adults believe it or not," said Senior Aviculturist David Brandt.

FOX 8 got to play with 24-year-old Garth, the penguin. Garth even made an original work of art by stepping in safe, water-based paint and leaving little penguin footprints across a canvas.

"What we're really trying to do is get people aware of how these have become endangered," said Brandt.

The money for the wild excursion with penguins and the Maya dive or snorkel adventure goes to the aquarium's conservation fund and to exhibit upkeep.

"It does go toward their care. We're hoping eventually to get a larger penguin exhibit in here which will bring in even more penguins," said Brandt.

Visit the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas website to sign up for one of the wild encounters. Audubon members pay a discounted price. For non-members, 45 minutes of snorkeling costs $150 for members and $175 for nonmembers. Scuba diving costs $250. A backstage pass with a penguin costs $125.

Copyright 2014 WVUE. All rights reserved.

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