{mosimage}Exactly 353 paces down the planks of Manhattan Beach Pier sits the Roundhouse Marine Studies Lab and Aquarium, which is as big as the average two-bedroom apartment in Hollywood. But that’s the beauty of it. With the prodigious Long Beach and Monterey Bay aquariums relatively nearby, the Roundhouse is a low-key alternative that is peaceful, intimate and easy to navigate. Come prepared to get your hands wet; the kid-friendly touch tanks are the facility’s biggest draw, featuring starfish and anemones (neither of which feel like you think they might). Small sharks are occasionally available for petting, as well. A 3,500-gallon shark tank houses stealthy leopard sharks up to 5 feet long, and an 18-pound, 50-year-old lobster named Spike, who, like most Pacific lobsters, is clawless. Many of the animals are shy, so it’s worth a second (or sixth) look to discover who was hiding. The aptly named two-spot octopus plays hard to get. The ray petting pool appears oddly devoid of thornback, shovelnose-guitar and bat rays until feeding time, when they shimmy out from under the sand for a meal.

Fishing is permitted off the pier, but you’ll have to look to the history books to see photos of big catches being hauled from these waters, as they were in the 1920s. And if you just want to catch a glimpse, there’s a fair amount of dolphin traffic off the coast here, and gray whales pass through between November and March. Most of the flora and fauna in the Roundhouse tanks are native to Santa Monica Bay; many of the species come from right below the pier. And, though one moray eel has stuck around for 15 years, most residents of the Roundhouse don’t stay as long; animals are released back into the ocean, where maybe they’re telling stories about us. Shark feeding time is on Saturdays at 12:30 p.m.; classes and camps are available. Suggested donation is $2 to $4.

Roundhouse Marine Studies Lab and Aquarium at the end of the Manhattan Beach pier, (310) 379-8117 or www.roundhouseaquarium.org

LA Weekly