In a way, Mighty Mike looks like he's smiling.

In a way, Mighty Mike looks like he's smiling.

The American alligator has moseyed assuredly from a small pond onto a replica of a backwoods bayou porch, every so often opening and closing jaws that could snap my torso in half.

Still, you get the sense that he appreciates being rescued from the chopping block. A 14-foot, 800-pound beast with a sly little grin.

Saved from extermination in 2000 by a concerned Southern trapper, the giant carnivore is the newest attraction at the Newport Aquarium, the conservation facility located just south of Cincinnati. He's filling in until late spring for a penguin encounter that's currently under construction.

"People have loved seeing him over the past few weeks," said Ric Urban, curator of birds and mammals and creator of several of the aquarium's exhibits. "He's just an incredible creature."

Certainly. And he has company.

Founded in 1999, the aquarium is the perfect place to venture during winter's final frustrating doldrums - a captivating labyrinth of natural wonders and creatures you never thought possible.

Like the Japanese spider crab, which lives as deep as 2,000 feet and grows spiny legs that can measure 13 feet across. Or the giant Pacific octopus, which can pour its sinewy, suckered body through extremely tiny spaces. Or the spotted garden eel, a finger-like animal that lives partially buried in sand.

Pretty cool, huh? That was a sampling from a single room.

"We're trying to give the guests the opportunity to be engaged," Urban explained. "We see these animals on TV, and we want to be closer to them. We provide that avenue."

You'll find living, breathing exhibits about the Amazon River, world frogs, Ohio waterways, sharks, tropical rainforests and even jellyfish. Other zoos might have a pair of those amorphous orbs; Newport has an entire room of them, with each species illuminated by awesome neon lights.

"I'm constantly learning more and more with all the animals I work with," Urban said. "I believe that every day is an adventure, and you should learn new stuff."