Paleontologist Ted Daeschler recently brought students from Moravian College into the back rooms of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University and showed them what he considers his greatest find to date: Tiktaalik roseae, a transitional species between fish and limbed land animals that Daeschler and two other esteemed scientists uncovered 11 years ago in the Canadian Arctic. As the group clustered around Daeschler's desk, he displayed the 375-million-year-old fossil and excitedly described the significance of this "fishapod."
"Take two major branches on the tree of life - lobe-finned fishes and limbed animals - and we're looking at their common ancestor," Daeschler said, the awe in his voice clear. "When we look at Tiktaalik, we see a mosaic of primitive and derived characteristics. . . . When is it a fin? When is it a limb? It's an evolutionary transition that took 20 million years."
A private chat with a rock star among scientists. An intimate look at submarine life with a veteran who once lived under the sea. The chance to see where your favorite football, baseball, hockey, and basketball stars prep before games or where they face the media afterward. These are just a few of the behind-the-scenes tours offered by local museums and facilities like the Academy of Natural Sciences; the Independence Seaport Museum; and the homes of the Phillies, Eagles, 76ers, and Flyers.
"Everyone likes to peek behind the curtain," said Bill Mifflin, executive director of Philadelphia Hospitality, which offers open-house tours of exclusive locales, including the Union League in the city and the Wharton Esherick Museum in the suburbs. "In addition to providing exclusive access, we always add a unique perspective in the appropriate field of interest."
A private tour of the USS Becuna submarine, a part of the Independence Seaport Museum, could be guided by former Navy man and volunteer Pat Taylor. He spent five years in the service, part of it on a nuclear submarine, so he knows his stuff. The Becuna did five war patrols in the Pacific Ocean during World War II, sinking four enemy ships. It was sent to sea with 24 torpedoes, and the sailors slept in shifts in bunks placed right on top of those explosives.
One of the best things about life on a submarine was the food. "They got a different cut of meat than the surface people get," he said. One of the worst things? The smell, as the nickname "pig boats" was well-deserved, he said.
A joke among sub veterans: A man wanted to bring live pigs aboard a submarine. A fellow sailor said, "But what about the smell?" The first man replied: "They'll get used to it. We all did."
But even better than those light tales is a look inside the sub's conning tower, where the crew played real war games. This is where the torpedo launch controls and the periscopes are.
Taylor pointed out the "Christmas Tree," so-called because of its glowing green lights, which meant that all of the hull openings were closed and that it was safe to submerge. Launching a torpedo meant using an analog computer that required operators to enter information, such as the target's speed, course, and boat type by hand.
"It makes you think about what you're doing," Taylor said. "You don't just push a button."
Another way to look at life under the sea is by visiting the Adventure Aquarium in Camden. Beginning this month, visitors can sign up for a free behind-the-scenes peek at the Ocean Realm exhibit, the largest aquarium with 760,000 gallons of seawater. Viewed from above, tourgoers can watch more than 160 species of fish and 10 sharks roam their watery world. Some sharks swim near the surface, allowing glimpses of their dorsal fins above the water. Another creature to look for: Bob, a female loggerhead turtle that runs the tank, employees said, bossing around even the sharks.
"Bob had my whole foot in her mouth two weeks ago," aquarium diver Terry Jerome said to a group of visitors during a recent tour. It wasn't scary, he said, just her way of getting some attention.
Back at the Academy of Natural Sciences, Daeschler firmly won over the Moravian students when he mentioned taking a model of Tiktaalik roseae on The Colbert Report in 2006. During an interview with the conservative-host character played by Stephen Colbert, Daeschler summed up evolution - "Sex and time," he said - and said this fossil find proved that evolution "is a fact of life." An outraged Colbert said: "This is the precursor of all limbed animals? Are you saying I am part trout?"
"You are part fish," Daeschler confirmed on Colbert. "A special kind of fish, a lobe-finned fish."
Other parts of the exclusive tour included a look at plant samples collected by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark in the early 1800s, the jaw of a prehistoric fish uncovered recently at the site of a Western Pennsylvania road project, and a dinosaur toe recently found in a New Jersey creek.
Daeschler also shared a collection of fossils owned by Thomas Jefferson. "They were in the White House with him," Daeschler marveled. "They're from 120 million years ago, and they look like they're from yesterday."
Science, he said, is ever-changing. Each new find is exciting and challenging, making supporting its growth so important.
"Never let anybody say, 'Oh, we've discovered everything. We don't have much to learn about this or that,' " Daeschler said. "That could not be further from the truth."
With specialized tours, attractions come alive
Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University
If you've ever read From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler or seen any of the Night at the Museum films, you may have a hankering to sleep among the exhibits. That's possible at the academy, which offers overnight stays for adults only that include a scavenger hunt. If you want to bring the kids, the Family Safari overnight is what you need. Or try a run-of-the-mill behind-the-scenes tour led by one of the museum's experts. For more information, visit www.ansp.org.
Philadelphia Open House
This nonprofit organization promoting city sights offers a series of behind-the-scenes tours each year. The 2015 options, offered from June 8 to 14, include cocktails and conversation with restaurateur Ellen Yin of Fork and High Street on Market, a trip into the vaults of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and a look at the private gardens of noted philanthropist Dorrance Hamilton. For more information, call 215-790-9901 ext. 12 or visit www.philahospitality.org.
Independence Seaport Museum
Try one of these specialized tours for 10 or more for a deeper look at the historic USS Olympia cruiser or the USS Becuna submarine. Premium tours, which include lunch or dinner, start at $46 a person. For more information, visit www.phillyseaport.org or call 215-413-8655.
Citizens Bank Park
Public tours of the home of the Phillies are offered Monday through Saturday during the baseball season (except during home games) and three days a week during the off-season. All tickets require advance purchase. A typical tour features a stop in the Phillies' dugout, the broadcast booth, and the Diamond Club. For information, visit philadelphia.phillies.mlb.com,
call the tour hotline at 215-218-5360, or send
an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Lincoln Financial Field
Take a look at the Eagles' locker room and other sights normally out of the reach for the average fan on one of the stadium's public or private tours. Tours are offered year-round with a few blackout dates, including home games, and they last 60 to 90 minutes. Tickets must be purchased at least 24 hours in advance. For information, visit www.lincolnfinancialfield.com/stadium-tours.
Wells Fargo Center
Visit one of the facility's private suites, luxury boxes, and the private lounges big shots love.
Take a look at the hats from the Flyers' hat tricks, and check out the collection of 76ers memorabilia. For information, go to www.wellsfargocenterphilly.com.
Swim with the sharks in New Jersey. Or, more precisely, snorkel in their tank. You can also feed the stingrays in this behind-the-scenes tour. If man-eaters aren't your thing, consider the "Positively Penguins" adventure, which includes a visit to the penguins' home island, at least the one in Camden.
For a look at the "Ocean Realm" exhibit, sign up for an afternoon showing at the information desk. The free service is limited to about 20 visitors, and spots are allotted on a first-come, first-serve basis. For information, visit www.adventureaquarium.com or call the sales office at 800-616-5297.
QVC Studio Tour
Take a look at the West Chester studio where electronic retailing first exploded, with a regular tour or a "Backstage Pass." The behind-the-scenes option is limited to those 18 and older and requires guests be able to walk and stand for extended periods. Guests may visit the show kitchens, see their favorite personalities in the salon, or get advance looks at products before they go on air. For information, visit www.qvc.com.
Among the unique offerings from the nonprofit tourism organization is "Independence After Hours," which takes guests back to the 18th century for dinner,
a nighttime visit to Independence Hall, and a question-and-answer session with "Thomas Jefferson."
For more information,
- Natalie Pompilio