Water World at the Smithsonian

A model of a 45-foot-long North Atlantic right whale named Phoenix hangs from the ceiling at the new Sant Ocean Hall.
A model of a 45-foot-long North Atlantic right whale named Phoenix hangs from the ceiling at the new Sant Ocean Hall. (By Bill O'leary -- The Washington Post)
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Wednesday, October 1, 2008

If you've seen one ocean, you've seen them all.


That's just one of the big ideas you might take away from the Sant Ocean Hall, the National Museum of Natural History's new permanent exhibition space dedicated to all things, er, ocean-y. The Atlantic? The Pacific? Same ocean, different neighborhood.

See, scientists today think about all those oceans and seas as one big body of water, collected into several puddles, or basins, around the world.

Hundreds of millions of years ago, it really was one big ocean. This was back when the individual continents that we know today (Asia, North America, etc.) were still part of a single, giant landmass, a supercontinent called Pangea (pronounced pan-GEE-uh). The ancient ocean surrounding all that? It was called Panthalassa (pronounced PAN-thuh-LASS-UH). Both names come from the Greek language. Pangea means "all earth." Panthalassa, "all seas." You'll learn about this and cool other ocean facts in "Science on a Sphere," a video projected onto a globe-shaped screen.

If you lived in the ocean, would you prefer the icy waters of Antarctica or a tropical coral reef? You'll find plenty here to help you make up your mind, including an exhibit dedicated to life at the north and south poles.

The Coral Reef display is an enormous aquarium, stocked with live fish and growing corals. But life in the water doesn't just change from climate to climate. It also changes the deeper you go -- and the darker it gets. Scientists divide the ocean into three very different layers: the sunlit zone near the surface, where you can still see daylight; the murkier twilight zone, where it's halfway between light and dark; and the deep ocean, where the sun never shines.

To make it easy to understand how deep each layer goes, the museum uses a handy yardstick: the Washington Monument. The sunlit zone? It's one monument deep. The twilight zone is four. The deep ocean? That extends for 17 monuments. We know less about that part of the ocean than we do about outer space.

In the Ocean Hall you'll find examples of life at each of these three levels. From giant squids to tiny algae. From a seagull to a coelacanth (pronounced SEE-la-canth), and from the flintiest of fossils to the jiggliest of jellyfish. That's the other big message of the Ocean Hall: There's a world of water out there that's wider and more wonderful than anything you ever imagined. Go explore.


There's plenty to see. A set of giant prehistoric shark jaws. A model of a real, 45-foot-long North Atlantic right whale named Phoenix. Kid-friendly exhibits are marked with a picture of her. Look for it. Here's another handful of stops we think you shouldn't miss.

1. Dumbo Octopus (at left). You've got to love the name, if not the creature. And with a pair of earlike flippers that make it look like Disney's famous flying elephant, what's not to love? Oh, and it also looks like it's wearing a skirt. Location in Ocean Hall: Open Ocean.

2. Sa rgassum Scavenger Hunt. Find the shrimps, crabs and anemones hiding in this jar of free-floating seaweed. Location: Open Ocean.

3. What's Under Your Beach Blanket? This display reveals that the sand is crawling with animals you can't see. One of them is called the peanut worm. Kind of gross, kind of awesome. Location: Shores and Shallows.

4. Adelie Penguin (at right). Fans of "Happy Feet" will want to check out what has to be the cutest stuffed penguin ever. Location: The Poles.

-- Michael O'Sullivan

© 2008 The Washington Post Company