Editors' pick

Sant Ocean Hall

Other Exhibit

Editorial Review

Going Deep

By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 26, 2008

Water, water everywhere.

The ocean covers 71 percent of the Earth's surface and comprises 95 percent of the planet's livable space. It is, on average, as deep as 22 Washington Monuments stacked end to end. Only 10 people have explored it beyond 3 1/2 miles down.

Those are just a few of the facts you'll encounter when you visit the National Museum of Natural History's new Sant Ocean Hall, which opens Saturday just off the museum's rotunda. (Look for the African elephant.)

True to its subject, it's the museum's largest single exhibit, with 23,000 square feet and hundreds of specimens and models on display. Sound a bit daunting? It is.

But that's where we come in.

Here's our guide to a place that aims to both educate and astonish. Like the ocean itself -- which scientists have divided into the sunlit zone, the twilight zone and the deep ocean -- we've made it easy for you to figure out how deep to go and what to see, all without getting the bends.

Depending on how much time you've got, and how deep a dip you want to take in the Ocean Hall, we've broken up its attractions into three groups. The first, which we're calling snorkelers, is for surface swimmers. The second, for those who want to stay in a bit longer before they come up for air, is scuba divers. The third, deep-sea divers, is reserved for those who have no time constraints and want to sink as deep into the subject as they can.

Regardless of your diver rating, come on in. The water's fine.

The Snorkeler
(Visiting time: Half-hour, tops.)

You'll kick yourself if you miss these Ocean Hall features, any one of which could become a visitor favorite.

Phoenix the Whale. The Ocean Hall's theme could be characterized as "what lies beneath." But never mind that. As soon as you step into the place, you're going to want to look straight up. That's where you'll be greeted by the hall's unofficial mascot, Phoenix. Hanging from the ceiling, she's a 45-foot replica of a North Atlantic right whale. But not just any old North Atlantic right whale. This one is a kind of portrait, a scale-model model of a living whale that has been tracked by scientists since her birth in 1987. See those rough-looking bumps on her face? They're not barnacles, but callosities (similar to the calluses we get on our hands and feet). And their distinctive pattern is what helps trackers identify Phoenix from the air. You can even touch one of those warty growths at one of the Ocean Hall's several hands-on displays.

Giant Squids. Next, head for that coffinlike metal case under Phoenix's tail. Inside? A 24-foot-long female giant squid, one of two specimens -- his 'n' hers -- preserved in a special hair-gel-like fluid developed by 3M. In a separate tank nearby you'll find a smaller, but no less eye-popping male. Now would be the time to take out your camera. The photo op -- you next to what appears to be the world's largest calamari appetizer -- is too good to pass up.

Giant Great White Shark Jaw. With a case all to itself, the Ocean Hall's one must-see fossil belongs to Carcharodon megalodon, a now-extinct giant shark whose massive size (up to 52 feet) makes that other great white from the movies look like a goldfish. The teeth here are real. Only the jawbone itself, six feet tall when poised to chomp, is a reconstruction.

Coral Reef. Clown fish and living corals abound in this stunning 1,500-gallon aquarium, designed to replicate a coral reef ecosystem. But don't just look for the star of "Finding Nemo." Check out such exotic species as the exquisite wrasse, known for its strange ability to, ahem, change sex in midlife. This is the Ocean Hall's only live display, and it's among the most beautiful.

Coelacanth."What the hell is that thing?" a visitor was heard to mutter at a recent preview. Okay, so the coelacanth (pronounced "SEE-la-kanth") will never win any piscine beauty contest, but it has an amazing backstory. Thought to have gone extinct 65 million years ago, it was discovered alive and well in 1938, when a South African fisherman caught one. The National Museum of Natural History is the only place in the world to have not one but two preserved specimens on display: a mother and her equally pug-ugly pup.

Video Fix: Projected directly onto the walls high around the perimeter of the Ocean Hall, award-winning underwater cinematographer Feodor Pitcairn's "Ocean Odyssey" captures the diversity of marine life around the globe. Shown in a continuous loop on eight screens, the 23-minute high-def film is the visual equivalent of background music. In other words, you don't need to watch it from beginning to end. There's no sound, no narration and no plot. Dip in. Dip out. Want the director's cut? An hour-long version is available on DVD from the museum gift shop.

The Scuba Diver
(Visiting time: One hour, and I mean it.)

Got a little more time? Add these attractions, which go a little below the surface.

Biodiversity Cases. Pitcairn's pretty video images are only an appetizer. The Ocean Hall features 674 specimens representing all known phyla. To learn more about the wide variety of marine life, stop by the display cases just inside the Ocean Hall's main entrance. They contain examples of creatures finned and feathered, vertebrate and invertebrate, great and small, from a massive model of a lion's mane jellyfish to an enlarged representation of a microscopic dinoflagellate (more commonly known as algae).

Ocean in the News. You've seen Phoenix the whale. Now head over to the Ocean in the News section. There you'll find the latest updates on the real Phoenix's whereabouts at one of several interactive news kiosks, as well as discover other ocean-centric stories, scientific advancements and cool video clips. Be sure to check out the digital news ticker, a collaboration with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that displays bulletins on such real-time ocean events as hurricanes.

Ancient Whales. Did you notice those skeletons hanging near Phoenix? They're the fossilized remains of some of her ancient cousins, including the sea-serpent-like Basilosaurus. Its name means "king lizard," and it could grow to more than 55 feet long.

Drawers. Scattered throughout the hall you'll see drawers about knee height that invite you to open them. Pull one out. Inside are even more examples of marine life, grouped by such features as fin shape.

Video Fix:"Deep Ocean Explorers." Hitch a ride on the submersible vessel Alvin as it descends from the sunlit zone near the ocean's surface, through the twilight zone (yes, that's its real name) all the way down to the bottom of the deep ocean. Screening continuously in the Deep Ocean Theater, this 13-minute video joy ride offers a short tour of a watery world of beauty and mystery.

The Deep-Sea Explorer
(Visiting time: Don't rush me, I've got all day.)

Okay, you've seen all that stuff. Now here are a few more suggestions for those who want to plunge into even deeper waters.

Living on an Ocean Planet. Here's where you do your homework after you've taken in all that the Ocean Hall has to offer. Touch-screen computers let you test your skills on such interactive challenges as managing a virtual fishery. Trust me, the game is harder than it looks.

Journey Through Time. If you like the giant shark jaw and the ancient whale skeletons, you may want to linger a bit longer with the Ocean Hall's extensive fossil collection. It boasts specimens both beautiful and strange, including a never-before-exhibited example of a placoderm, the Devonian fish that was among the first vertebrates with jaws. Its fierce face and armor-plated skin make it look like something forged by a medieval weapons-maker.

Salmon Shape a Way of Life. Just beyond Phoenix the whale, look for the 25-foot carved red canoe overhead. A gift of the Native American Tlingit (pronounced "CLING-ket") nation, it symbolizes the importance of fishing in the culture of this Northwest Pacific Coast people. Nearby display cases about sustainable Native salmon harvesting offer a powerful subtext about how all of us depend on the ocean and vice versa.

Video Fix:"Science on a Sphere." You've heard of a rotating film schedule? Well, the four four-minute videos screening in the Ocean Systems gallery do that -- quite literally. Projected onto a globe-shaped screen, the short but dense programs (titled "It Changes," "It's Connected," "It Interacts" and "It Produces") create a kind of high-tech, video-in-the-round experience where visitors on all sides of the spherical screen can watch what appears to be a spinning, changing Earth. If "Deep Ocean Explorer" is meant to inspire, "Science on a Sphere" teaches.