Most of the year, Moss Landing Marine Laboratories isn't overrun with children of all ages poking and probing everything in sight.
But on Saturday and Sunday, hundreds of visitors toured the institution's nine labs, felt squishy marine life in a touch pool, and peered at slices of fish bone under a microscope. Children and adults put their hands on dozens of interactive exhibits — with only a few "don't touch" items on display, such as a horror-flick-worthy Giant Grouper skull as big as a beach ball.
That and other fish bones mesmerized 6-year-old Maite Giron of Prunedale, who stared down a dogtooth tuna skull.
For Maite's and other Central Coast families, the lab's annual (and free) open house has become an all-day destination, with local food for sale on site and events like the student puppet show drawing standing-room crowds.
The rest of the year, the tucked-away laboratory that overlooks an impressive expanse of Monterey Bay coastline is occupied by serious researchers, including around 60 graduate students.
The 47-year-old lab runs California State Universities' master's in marine science programs for Northern and Central California.
But even its academic side embodies a playful spirit.
"We're all so passionate about marine science and being nerds together," said Kristin Walovich, a graduate student from San Jose State University who conducts research at the lab's Pacific Shark Research Center.
Walovich, 25, is one of about seven students studying in the shark research center, part of the specialty marine science labs housed at the Moss Landing facility.
Prospective students apply to a specific lab where they want to focus their graduate research. For Walovich, the decision was easy.
"Sharks have been my passion for many years," she said. Asked why, she paused and said it was hard to put into words.
"They're so beautiful and majestic," she said finally. "When you see them swimming in the water, they're just majestic."
One of the shark center's goals is to document sightings of the little-known basking shark, which Walovich describes as a gentle creature that happens to be really, really big. As in 30 feet big — making it the second-largest member of the shark family.
"If it's bigger than your boat, it could be a basking shark," Walovich told an enthralled group that included knee-high children and older folks.
One little girl asked what she should do if she's swimming and happens to bump into one of the giant critters.
Walovich assured her that unlike some of its cousins, the plankton-eating shark isn't interested in chowing down on humans.
"Its teeth are only as big as your fingernail," she said, adding that it's still a good idea to keep a safe distance from any wildlife.
"If you're not scared by it," she told the girl, "you could try to notice any special markings" so the sighting can be reported to the lab at its website, psrc.mlml.calstate.edu/.
Since the lab began its "Spot a Basking Shark Project" in 2011, 55 sightings of the creatures have been reported from the Big Sur area north to Monterey Bay.
The lab is asking boaters, fisher-folk and anyone else who runs across a basking shark to document the sighting, take a photo, and note details about its location and markings.
"A lot of people don't know the basking shark exists in California — or in the Monterey Bay," Walovich said. It tends to live in deeper waters, only hovering near the surface around 10 percent of the time.
The lab is tracking the basking shark because there is little data on it, and several international and national organizations have put it on their "endangered" or "vulnerable" lists.
Serious research aside, the lab's biggest draw on Open House weekend is its musical puppet show, performed three times daily, in which the graduate students strut their stuff.
This year's performance was titled "Deep Sea Adventure," and included a Muppet-like underwater grouch who had younger audience members falling out of their seats.
The show's finale was not to be missed.
"Vogueing" in a Madonna-inspired chorus line, the cast belted out its answer to the question of how deep-sea creatures have evolved to survive far below the ocean's surface.
"I have adapted," they crooned, "Baby, I was born this way."
The show was so popular this year the troupe scheduled an after-hours encore Sunday evening for fellow students who were busy working during the Open House.
Julia Reynolds can be reached at 648-1187 or email@example.com.