Everyone knew Santa Claus could fly, but who knew the jolly old gent could swim? This Christmas weekend, he'll swim with the sharks.
Scuba Santa and his aquatic elf will appear at the Winter Wonderland Theater at Camden's Adventure Aquarium. The theater's movie-screen-size stage is one wall of the Ocean Realm aquarium, flanked by luxe theater curtains.
Scuba Santa and his elf, wearing special masks that allow them to breathe and talk underwater, stand inside the tank joking with the landlubber audience while tiger sharks, hammerhead sharks, and a 350-pound sea turtle glide by.
Why don't the sharks consider Santa a Christmas treat? Humans don't give off the same kind of predatory signal that a sickly fish might, aquarium officials say. Besides, the aquarium sharks are never fed live fish. They are pole-fed plenty of restaurant-quality whole raw herring, mackerel, and squid - plus vitamins.
Although the audience is unaware, Santa's elf is a dive buddy who uses sign language to alert Santa when a hammerhead or large ray is headed his way. Two other divers hover unseen at the top of the 760,000-gallon tank as rough-tail stingrays, rare shark rays, blacktip sharks, silky sharks, and blacknose sharks play bit parts in Santa's performance.
At the show's finale, dozens of children run to the glass to press their small hands to the tank, giving Santa low-fives for his performance.
"It was awesome," said Stephen Leypoldt, 7, of Marmora, N.J.
Gabriel Archer, 5, of Mickleton, said that Scuba Santa was his favorite - but that he was kind of skinny.
Scuba Santa and an elf with a fin sticking out of his back are just one act in the aquarium's Christmas Celebration, which also features a life-size Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer puppet; dance parties with Rudolph's not-so-abominable snowman pal, Bumble; and showings of Polar Express in the aquarium's 4-D Theater.
Two-year-old Sofia Foulds of Broomall, who said her favorite sea creature was the hammerhead shark, ran to see Rudolph. Mouth agape, she stared at his glowing red nose and never blinked as he lifted a paw toward her.
When indoor snow started spewing from posts around Bumble's dance party, 4-year-old Matthew Mistic of Marmora raised his arms and sped in circles under the faux flakes, stopping only to hug Bumble.
Parents snapped photos while their kids danced around Bumble. "We've had some moms and dads come out and show their dancing ability, too," said Kim Walker, an aquarium spokeswoman.
After the dance party, kids ran off to view the aquarium's 6,400 animals. The smallest are probably the microscopic brine shrimp. The largest, hands down, are Genny and Button, the 3,000-pound swimming hippos, which like to nestle next to the aquarium glass. The most Christmas-themed is Penguin Island, with 20 penguins in an outdoor environment.
The made-you-look exhibit for dads was the piranha tank, billed as "the other Jaws."
Most adults were mesmerized by tubes of tropical fish in Play-Doh colors.
Some kids plopped themselves down inside Shark Realm, a transparent, underwater shark tunnel. Others chose to feed tropical birds almost as tall as they were.
Most gravitated to the touch pools, where they could gently glide two fingers across live sea cucumbers, starfish, jellyfish, sharks, rays, and a rare (one in 10,000 births) blue lobster. "We want to be America's most-touchable aquarium," Walker said.
Amalia Worrad, 4, of Audubon, Camden County, who experienced the touch pools for the first time on her last visit to the aquarium, dipped her hand in the water to touch jellyfish, starfish, and rays this time around.
"It's great for the little ones because there's stuff for them to touch and open and close. They learn by playing," said Amalia's mom, Diane Worrad, "which is the best way to learn."
Santa, Rudolph, and Bumble will appear frequently next week, when schools are closed. Here is the weekend schedule:
I Believe in Scuba Santa show: 10:45 a.m. and 12:45 p.m.
Bumble appearances: To be announced.
Rudolph appearances: 11:30 to 12:30 p.m., 1:30 to 2:30 p.m., and 3 to 4 p.m.
Polar Express 4-D Experience: 12:30 and 3:30 p.m.
Scuba Santa appearances (no show): 10:45 a.m. and 2:30 p.m.
I Believe in Scuba Santa show: 12:45 p.m.
Bumble appearances: To be announced.
Polar Express 4-D Experience: 12:30 p.m.
I Believe in Scuba Santa show: 10:45 a.m., 1:15 p.m., 2:30 p.m., and 3:30 p.m.
Bumble Christmas Show: 11:15 a.m., 12:45 p.m., and 3 p.m.
Gill's Holiday Dance Party: noon, 2 p.m., and 3:45 p.m.
Rudolph appearances: 10 to 11:15 a.m., noon to 1:15 p.m., and 2 to 3 p.m.
Polar Express 4-D Experience: 11:30 a.m. and 3 p.m.
Where: Adventure Aquarium, 1 Riverside Dr., Camden.
When: Open 9:30 a.m.
to 5 p.m. daily, including Christmas Eve and Christmas.
Cost: Adults, $21.95; children ages 2 to 12, $17.95; children younger than 2 are admitted free.
4-D Theater tickets are extra. Tickets are available at the aquarium or online at adventureaquarium.com.