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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It sounds like a picturesque summer outing: a cruise run by the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, California. But on the Urban Ocean Boat Cruise, as it's called, you don't see a lot of Mother Nature, as NPR's Kirk Siegler found out.

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KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: In front of the aquarium, school kids are running around, eager to go inside and pet the sharks and see the penguins. And there's also a marina, where a small passenger boat called the Cristina, shoves off from sunny Shoreline Aquatic Park.

KERA MATHES: Hello, everyone, and thank you for joining the Aquarium of the Pacific...

SIEGLER: But instead of taking a left, for a scenic cruise down along the famous beaches of Southern California, it veers right, and into the country's busiest shipping terminal, and the mouth of the L.A. River.

MATHES: As you can see, this river right here will dump into the ocean, bringing lots of stuff with it, including trash and chemicals.

SIEGLER: Chemicals like domoic acid, which has been blamed for sickening the local sea lion population. Our guide talking over the wind on the crackly loudspeaker is Kera Mathes. She's an educator with the Aquarium.

MATHES: Pretty much any of the trash that you see today in the water will probably have come from this L.A. River. It's not necessarily the beach goers, but it's people that live all around the watershed which go all the way up into the mountains. So, no matter...

SIEGLER: And the twenty million people living in the greater Los Angeles area do a lot of stuff - intentionally or not - that harms this ocean. This was an eye opener for Cristina Duffy, who brought her young daughter Emily aboard.

CRISTINA DUFFY: When we were at the pier, she saw the bottles, the trash in the water and she was really concerned about that.

SIEGLER: But now, peering over the side of the boat, Emily is only concerned about one thing.

EMILY DUFFY: I don't see any dolphins.

SIEGLER: Disappointed so far? No dolphins?

E. DUFFY: No.

SIEGLER: She has to settle for sea lions - seven of them - crowded onto a buoy bobbing in the gentle current.

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SIEGLER: Later, on the bridge, the aquarium's Kera Mathes is riding with the captain. And she tells me that a lot of the pollution problems here stem from the 1930s when the Navy built an eight-mile strip of breakwater. It acts like a big net, catching the trash and spilled fuel and all sorts of nasty things from all the industrial activity here. But Mathes says the breakwater also allowed the ports of L.A. and Long Beach to become the busiest in the nation.

MATHES: If you have something that doesn't say Made in the USA, chances are it came through this port, including our clothes, shoes, some food, some of our electronics basically comes through this port. Half the stuff is right through here.

SIEGLER: So, this summer, the Cristina will be a common sight, chugging between the giant cargo ships and cranes, giving aquarium visitors a rare close-up look at the ports and the environment around them. Kirk Siegler, NPR News.

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MARTIN: This is NPR News.

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