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California aquariums give the illusion that you're at the bottom of the sea

Shake hands with an octopus. Swim with hundreds of deep-water fish. Pet a dolphin. Feed a killer whale. Pick up a sea star. At aquariums and marine parks on the West Coast you can do all of these things, but be prepared to get wet.

No longer are aquariums narrow dark chambers lined by rows of uniformly dim boxes of water bearing tiny signs with unpronounceable names. West Coast aquariums aren't just for looking. They're designed so that people can get involved in the action - above the water, under the water, in the water.

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San Francisco's Steinhart Aquarium, for example, puts viewers in the center of a huge doughnut-shaped ring of water, called a Fish Roundabout, which gives the heady experience of being in midocean, in the center of the action. ''We wanted to create the experience afforded deep-sea divers without people even getting wet,'' says director John McCosker. With the illusion that they are swimming against the current in open ocean, but through an endless tunnel of water, ''the fish have been swimming since 1977 and they haven't stopped yet,'' testifies Mr. McCosker smugly, obviously enjoying the trick he's played on hundreds of fish.

The Seattle Aquarium offers a four-hour fair-weather excursion on Puget Sound , which involves visitors in research tasks and the activities of a collecting expedition. ''They get to gather plankton, look through microscopes, troll for fish, and play Jacques Cousteau for a day,'' explains John Nightingale, senior curator. There is also an overhead tank that gives visitors the illusion of being on the bottom of the sea.

Marineland's Baja Reef has a swim-through aquarium. On a windy cliff overlooking the Pacific, Marineland's 85-foot horseshoe-shaped aquarium is the wettest, wildest experience of all. Provided with wet suit, snorkel, mask, and fins, visitors are ushered into a silent underwater world and invited to mingle with some 3,000 fish, turtles, rays, and even small sharks - harmless, I'm told and can testify. They didn't bother me, and I certainly wasn't going to bother them.

Taken together, these hands-on, get-wet experiences are revolutionizing aquarium-going. From north to south, here are the West Coast's wettest and best: Vancouver Public Aquarium in Stanley Park PO Box 3232, Vancouver, B.C. V6B 3X8, Canada (604) 685-3364

One of the most extensive, its kaleidoscope of creatures come from the Amazon to the Arctic, the Caribbean to the Red Sea - everything from alligators, eels, and iguanas to Arctic white whales, exotic fishes, and nudibranches, those dramatic and colorful sea slugs, as well as performing killer whales. A new tropical river gallery in a glass conservatory will soon plunge visitors into a total habitat of a South American jungle river, complete with foliage, pools, amphibians, birds, and jungle sounds. Seattle Aquarium Pier 59, Waterfront Park, Seattle, Wash. 98101 (206) 625-4357

Out on a downtown pier, salmon fight their way up a salmon ladder and northern fur seals frolic like some combination torpedo and ballerina. Sixth to tenth graders give informal talks on the sea as a ''living soup.'' Oregon State University Marine Science Center Newport, Ore. 97365 (503) 867-3011

Primarily educational in approach, it gives study walks at nearby tide pools. According to his mood, an octopus in the touch-and-feel tank allows himself to be handled. Steinhart Aquarium California Academy of Sciences Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, Calif. 94118 (415) 221-5100

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Sixty jewel tanks display intriguing creatures in their own microhabitats. In the wet hands laboratory visitors may handle 500 animals of 50 species. Marineland PO Box 937, Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif. 90274 (213) 377-1571

A marine park more than an aquarium. At killer whale shows animals perform natural behaviors of syncopated fluke flapping and spectacular high jumps. Scripps Institute of Oceanography University of California at San Diego La Jolla, Calif. 92093

Although primarily committed to research, the too-few tanks captivate visitors with the strange and beautiful from southern Californian and Mexican waters. A rocky replica of a tide pool with wave action gives a hands-on experience. Sea World 1720 South Shores Road, San Diego, Calif. 92109 (714) 224-3562

The West Coast's most extensive marine park in San Diego's water recreational center, Mission Bay. Shark tanks, penguins, fresh and saltwater aquariums, tide pools, marina mammals and highly entertaining - and wet - killer whale shows.

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