02/27/2012 06:35 pm ET Updated Apr 28, 2012

Sunday With the Sea Lions

(Yes, the title of this article owes some inspiration to Mary Pope Osborn's Magic Tree House series...)

Over the long weekend last week, I experienced something very rare for a college student -- free time! After getting my computer science homework done early on Sunday morning, I had the whole afternoon free. Following some contemplation, I remembered that when I'd visited the New England Aquarium with my father back in the fall, I'd signed up to become a member and gotten a card in the mail -- but I'd never had the time to go back to the aquarium since.

I figured that Sunday was as good a time as any, so, after lunch, I caught a cab and headed for the harbor.

It was weird to think that I hadn't been in the North End since walking the Freedom Trail with some other Boston University students all the way back in October. Even from outside, the aquarium seemed busy, with many families taking advantage of the long weekend just like I was. Luckily, the "Members" line was shorter than the regular one.

The aquarium's entrance is very dramatic -- the awning over the outdoor ticket window is made of shiny steel and juts forward like a ship's prow, making the whole building look, appropriately enough, like a ship emerging from Boston Harbor. After getting my hand stamped, I wandered around the first floor checking out the exhibits. Some trainers were doing a presentation with the penguins, so most of the tanks were relatively uncrowded.

I tried to photograph a lionfish in the coral reef exhibit, but he kept moving and coming out as a blur. Lionfish look somewhat unwieldy with all of their spines, but this one was almost acrobatic as he swam around the tank, changing direction quickly.

It was very relaxing to just stand back and watch the multicolored reef fish dart around the rocks -- it reminded me a little of watching cars on Commonwealth Avenue from my dorm window, except without the noise! And it was cute seeing little kids pointing out "Nemos" (Clownfish) and "Dorys" (Royal Blue Tangs) to their parents. I remembered snorkeling on the real Great Barrier Reef when I'd visited Australia back in the summer of 2007. What a piece of everyday magic -- being transported, for just a few moments, from a wintry, gray day in Boston to the tropical Pacific!

I moved on to the next window, showing a "deep reef" in Mexico's Sea of Cortez -- in the dimmer blue light, nautiluses jetted around pieces of coral that were visible only as dark outlines against the tank. Just like moving through the atmosphere towards space, when divers descend through the hydrosphere into the deep-sea, blue becomes darker and gives way to black. (And humans require more special equipment to stay alive!)

The crowding made navigating the ramps up to the upper floors of the aquarium an unpleasant prospect, so I decided to check out the outdoor marine mammal pavilion. A sleek bronze sculpture of a sea-lion chasing fish caught my eye, and I stopped to take a picture of my hand "petting" the statue. Just around the corner, the real harbor seals and sea lions were relaxing in their habitat tank, while a trainer was giving a short presentation.

Now, I said that the marine mammal pavilion was outside, and it was, although there was a roof overhead and a glass divider to keep out people who hadn't paid for aquarium admission while still preserving the excellent view of the docks and Boston Harbor. This meant that it was the same ambient temperature as outside on the harbor, so I was bundled up in my coat. The water in the seal-and-sea-lion exhibit, then, must have been very cold as well.

However, taking full advantage of their fur coats, the sea lions were all lying on their backs in the part of the exhibit that had shallow water, with their heads lifted out of the water so that they could breathe. Every now and then, they would roll over to scratch an itch, and then return to lying there serenely with their eyes closed.

Those sea lions, I thought, had the right idea about how to spend a lazy Sunday afternoon.