Summer is the most popular time for New Yorkers and out-of-towners to visit the aquarium, one of the city's oldest institutions. Almost one million people visit the aquarium every year. They view it as a fun excursion on hot New York days, but its mission is to educate as well as to entertain. Curators and scientists say they use educational exhibits and special programs to promote awareness of ecological issues in more than 50 countries.

The New York Aquarium, located just steps from the Atlantic Ocean, houses over 8,000 creatures.

There are tiger sharks, penguins and sea horses, to name just a few. Some of them are from New York's own shorelines, but curators say many would face extinction in the wild, because of pollution or illegal hunting in their natural habitats.

Meryl Kafka, the curator of education, says the aquarium's mission is to promote ecological awareness, both in New York and around the world.

?We have 344 environmental conservation projects in over 50 countries in the world,? she notes. ?So while we are very New York-based, we have an international objective as well in terms of conservation education and research.?

On a typical day, between 2,000 and 3,000 children and teenagers come to the aquarium on school trips.

Chaya Sarahaimowitz came to the aquarium with her elementary school. She and her friends stood around the walrus tank, admiring the big, wrinkled animals as they sunned themselves on the rocks. Chaya wanted to know more about what the walruses eat. ?Can I ask you something? How do they feed them she asked.

School groups particularly enjoy the aquarium's touch tank, where they can handle small aquatic sea creatures like horseshoe crabs. The display, made to look like a rocky cove, includes an artificial waterfall and a man-made creek.

Ms. Kafka says exhibits like the touch tank encourage learning.

?We learn with the entire body,? she explains. ?Therefore, we ought to teach with the entire body. So our programming and our exhibitry is very sensory-rich. We want to excite the eyes and the ears and the noise and of course tactile experienses.?

The aquarium offers a wealth of creative educational events, including nature walks on nearby beaches and family-oriented "Breakfast with the Animals" programs. Trained seals and sea lions also do tricks for the public in daily shows. The enormously popular sea lion show combines music and humor with information about conservation.

?Take a look into our waters,? the announcer instructs the audience. ?You'll see many fish populations are dwindling and at this rate many fish species will soon become extinct. You and I have a chance to make a difference.?

Ms. Kafka views the aquarium as a training ground for a generation of young people who she hopes will grow up motivated to work on wildlife conservation. Every summer, high school students volunteer at the aquarium as docents or tour guides. They are trained to care for animals and to give guided tours to the public. Many of the docents go on to jobs caring for animals all over the world, sometimes as far away as Iraq.

?About six months ago, I got a call from a former docent,? she recalls. ?I said, 'Jackson, where are you?' He says he's in Iraq. He was taking care of the animals at the zoo in Iraq.?

Obviously, not every visitor to the aquarium will grow up to work with the creatures it houses, but the staff hopes that the aquarium will teach every visitor something about the complex, ever-changing ecosystems in our oceans, rivers and streams. After all, they say, 70 percent of our planet is covered by water, which means that we cannot afford to ignore our aquatic life.