New Ocean Hall Offers Deeper Sense of the Sea

By Joel Achenbach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 29, 2008

The new Ocean Hall riots with so much nature that you feel like you're snorkeling through a coral reef. You could swim in the place -- in a grand old room at the National Museum of Natural History -- for hours and still not see all the marvels.

Just the shells are amazing, each as pretty as its name: queen conch, triton's trumpet, shinbone tibia, sea butterfly, Atlantic deer cowrie, wavy clio, Reeve's turban, purple bubble-raft snail.

You'll come across the skull of Dunkleosteus, jaw bones sharpened like teeth. This is a creature that doesn't appear safe to approach even though it's been dead for more than 350 million years. A few feet away gapes the maw of Carcharodon, the giant great whale shark, a term that doesn't seem so redundant when you see it in person.

Five years in the making and opening to the public today, the Sant Ocean Hall, named after philanthropists Victoria and Roger Sant, may never become as popular as the dinosaur hall (what can compete with that?), but it is a vast improvement over the old ocean hall, demolished a full decade ago.

The museum needed its ocean back. Museum Director Cristián Samper had an overriding directive as he supervised this, the first major project in his five-year tenure: "I said this couldn't be a hall just about fish."

It's not an aquarium. In fact, other than one small coral-and-fish aquarium, there's hardly any water -- just the evocation of water through a blue-green color scheme. What there's lots of is video, including a high-definition film, shot underwater, projected on eight large screens around the top of the hall and offering the visitor something of an illusion of being immersed in the sea.

And there are lots of specimens. "This is a specimen-rich hall," Samper says. There are 674 species on exhibit, including a giant squid so gray and nasty that it could sink a ship on looks alone. When the Spanish offered this rare giant squid to America, the U.S Navy and Air Force handled the transfer and dubbed the mission "Operation Calamari."

Looming over the hall is a fake whale precisely modeled after a real whale that, at this very moment, is swimming around and spouting off in the real Atlantic Ocean. Her name is Phoenix. She's 21 years old. She's a North Atlantic right whale. There are fewer than 400 of her kind left, thanks to two centuries of aggressive whaling, ship collisions and other environmental insults. The fake Phoenix is true to the real Phoenix all the way down to the odd encrustations on her lip and the scars on her tail from the time she got tangled in a fishing line.

Samper gave President Bush and Chief Justice John Roberts a tour of the hall Friday morning. Samper said Bush seemed particularly fascinated with the innovative transparent gel created by 3M that allows the giant squid to be displayed without need for flammable alcohol as a preservative.

After the tour, Bush announced a series of initiatives the administration is taking to protect the ocean. The official transcript shows that he tried out some fishing riffs:

"You got to know I like oceans. I didn't grow up in the ocean -- as a matter of fact, near the ocean -- I grew up in the desert. Therefore, it was a pleasant contrast to see the ocean. And I particularly like it when I'm fishing. It turns out it's a -- I'm not the first president likes to fish. It turns out the first president really liked to fish. George Washington -- I was reading where he one time caught 100,000 herring in a single day. That's either a lot of fish or a lot of fishing.


"But unlike that George W., I have not had that kind of luck before."


The ocean's current situation is hardly a laughing matter. Coral reefs are being bleached by global warming. Nitrogen runoff has led to vast dead zones. Fish are being overharvested, and computer models show that some major fisheries will be nearly wiped out by the middle of this century. The recent proliferation of jellyfish is akin to cockroaches taking over the land. Scientists warn that the ocean is becoming a realm of "slime."

So for all the "Wow!" factor in the Ocean Hall, does it do justice to the environmental disasters unfolding around the planet?

After several controversies in the 1990s, the Smithsonian in recent years has tended to tip-toe around politically contentious issues. A temporary exhibit on the Arctic in 2006 proved to be an embarrassment, discussing the pole's melting with only a passing mention that human greenhouse gas emissions are a cause. The American Petroleum Institute initially offered $5 million to help create the new Ocean Hall, but that generated such controversy that last fall the institute rescinded the offer.

Samper says he tried to ensure that the driving forces of change in the ocean, from global warming to overexploitation of resources, are represented in the hall. They don't slam the visitor in the face, but they're there if you poke around. It's not all feel-good stuff by any means: Kids checking out the pictures of Phoenix will see a photograph of her dead mother, killed in a collision with a ship.

"I don't think the hall by itself will do the problems justice," Samper says. He hopes people will check out the hall's Web site for more information. The big goal here, he says, is to hook people, because the Ocean Hall reveals a world most of them have never seen.

We are, indeed, terrestrial creatures, naturally biased toward the land, the atmosphere, things that run and things that fly. As Samper puts it, "Most people's connection with the ocean stops at the beach." In fact very few people -- even scientists -- have seen the deepest parts of the sea. The hydrothermal vents that teem with strange crabs and worms were discovered only a couple of decades ago. New species are still being discovered in the lightless abyss of the sea.

The ocean's deepest point is about seven miles down. The hall's project manager, Elizabeth Musteen, says only 10 human beings have ever been deeper than 3 1/2 miles below the surface -- which means that the ocean trenches have been explored by fewer people than have explored the moon.

Bush talked Friday about "the oceans," but the Smithsonian may yet convince the public that the word should be singular. This is not the Oceans Hall: It's the Ocean Hall -- because it's all connected, a single global ecosystem divided into basins.

Perhaps the most profound words in the hall are those that greet the visitor at the entrance:

"This is an ocean planet."

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