Visiting an aquarium just a few miles from some of Maui's spectacular snorkeling and diving spots might seem like going to the Super Bowl but watching the...

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MA’ALAEA, Maui — Visiting an aquarium just a few miles from some of Maui’s spectacular snorkeling and diving spots might seem like going to the Super Bowl but watching the game on a portable TV.

After all, Hawaii’s breathtaking fish, corals, sponges and sea mammals are literally within reach of even novice snorkelers and scuba divers at places such as Ahihi-Kina’u Natural Area Preserve in south Maui and at Molokini Island, a crescent-shaped islet off the coast.

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But the ambitious Maui Ocean Center, which opened in 1998 in Ma’alaea on the island’s southwest side, has some oceanic secrets stashed around its sprawling acreage that make a visit worthwhile for even the most dedicated scuba buff.

Outdoors on the inviting plaza overlooking the port of Ma’alaea, there is a “petting zoo” where children are encouraged to (gently) touch sea anemones, starfish and other critters. Nearby is a turtle pond, where green sea turtles, Hawaii’s most common turtle, can be seen on the water’s surface from above or from below by going down a short staircase and peering into the side of the pool. The turtles are curious about visitors and aren’t shy about coming right up to viewers.

The Maui Ocean Center

192 Ma’alaea Road in Ma’alaea, Maui, about 10 miles north of the Kihei resort area. Admission: $19 adults, $13 children, $17 seniors. No family rate. Rental of audio guides: $2. More information: 808-270-7000,

Across the plaza is Stingray Cove, where wide, sleek stingrays and eagle rays glide by. The pool is shaded to protect the sensitive eyes of the rays, and it is a treat to see them so close to the surface.

The exhibits continue indoors with a mediocre whale exhibit that includes recordings of whale calls; a video game involving identifying breaching whales; and other activities far less compelling than seeing the live creatures that frequent Hawaiian waters.

Luckily, on the other end of the building is the Open Ocean display, the highlight of the aquarium. More than 2,000 varieties of fish, sharks and coral (the coral collection is the largest in the United States ) are displayed, some in small window-tanks and some in a 750,000-gallon saltwater aquarium through which a 50-foot acrylic tunnel allows visitors to wander at, and below, fish level.

Highlights include butterfly fishes, moray eels, unicorn fish, blacktip sharks and night creatures such as lobsters, squirrelfish and hawkfishes.

One quirk of the Maui Ocean Center: Travelers should be aware that, unlike the Oregon Coast Aquarium in Newport or the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California, it is run by a for-profit company, Coral World International, which manufactures underwater viewing systems. The entrance fee, accordingly, is steep: $19 per adult, or almost twice what the Newport aquarium charges. If you want to rent the audio guides and have lunch at the Seascape Restaurant (our lunch for two cost $43, including drinks), the excursion can really add up.

Plan to spend at least two hours at the aquarium, and don’t hesitate to mosey back toward the outdoor pools once you’ve toured the indoors. We found the turtles, for example, to be much livelier a little later in the day. The center encourages long visits in the gift shop, which is admittedly impressive, but the sea creatures are far more fascinating and not nearly as pricey.

Anne Hurley: (206) 515-5060;