Tuesday, April 30, 2013

In Praise of the Blue-Spaced “Wows!” in Aquariums

"Wow!" Baltimore Aquarium Shark (George Graff)
One of the 12 Sound Resolutions promoted in 1991 by the now-extinct People For Puget Sound included visiting an aquarium, zoo or museum to learn more about the Sound and its critters.

A critic complained that attending aquariums and zoos should not be encouraged because they were bad places where wild animals were kept in captivity against their wills; wild animals should be allowed to be wild. “Thank you for calling and sharing your concerns” was the only way to end that call.

While growing up, I’d been to some pretty sad zoos and aquariums but I haven’t felt that way recently. Especially not when returning today to visit the National Aquarium in Baltimore and hearing the first “Wow!” from the kid standing next to me upon reaching the first level viewing area exhibit, “Maryland: Mountains to the Sea.”

That “Wow!” and the excitement of parents and adults brought back to me the article by Michael Roberts in Outside about marine biologist Wallace J. Nichols (The Touchy-Feely (But Totally Scientific!) Methods of Wallace J. Nichols ):

“THE PHILIPPINE coral reef tank inside the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco is 25 feet deep and holds 212,000 gallons of water, making it one of the largest exhibits of living coral anywhere in the world. It is the centerpiece of the academy’s Steinhart Aquarium and hosts hundreds of coral species, a couple thousand colorful fish, plus sharks, stingrays, and numerous smaller creatures, like sea anemones and snails. There are five windows affording looks inside, the biggest of which, at 16 and a half feet tall and almost 30 feet wide, makes a sweeping arc in front of a dimly lit standing area backed by several rows of benches. It was designed to offer visitors a panoramic, theater-like view of life in the tank and is among the museum’s most popular attractions. It’s Wallace J. Nichols’s favorite spot in the building....
“Whether it’s a 92-year-old or a two-year-old, when they come into that blue space, something happens,” Nichols says. They grow quiet and calm, but there’s more to it than that. When couples walk in, they frequently start holding hands. He says that if you ask people here what they’re feeling, they’ll struggle for words. Nichols finds this fascinating. He also believes that if we can understand what really happens to us in the presence of the ocean—which brain processes underlie our emotional reactions—it could bring about a radical shift in conservation efforts. If we learn precisely why we love the ocean, his thinking goes, we’ll have an immensely powerful new tool to protect it.”

I’ve been to the Steinhart, too, and I didn’t go quiet. For me it was, “Wow!”, the same as that kid standing next to me in Baltimore. And it was “Wow!” in Monterey. And “Wow!” standing before the Seattle Aquarium’s big tank display in the lobby.

These are magnificent exhibits and in many ways they work hard to present the conservation message in the context of the “Wow!” but I don’t think we’ve come very far in understanding, as J. Nichols hopes, “why we love the ocean” and discovering any new tools to protect it.

Today, we watched the Giant Pacific Octopus with fascination, looked for birds and monkeys while walking up the levels of the tropical rain forest in the heavy mist, and spiraled down the levels of the Atlantic reef tank until reaching the sharks cruising the bottom below. But it’s hard to get a sense of what’s at the crux of conservation: that it’s the relationship of the land and the waters, that it’s the relationship of what goes on on the land that affects the critters of the waters, that it’s what goes on in our hearts and minds that determines the conservation of the oceans and its critters.

Until that “Wow!” comes with understanding that relationship, we’re doomed to lose much of what today might prompt our “Wows!” in our aquariums, zoos and museums.

It’s been fun exploring in the other Washington the American Indian Museum, the Air and Space Museum and the Hirshhorn, and finishing yesterday there at the U.S. Botanic Garden (but no monkeys in their tropical rain forest.) Not as many “Wows!” there as in the few hours today at the Baltimore National Aquarium but, after all, I was visiting from the Salish Sea.

--Mike Sato


  1. The collaborative research underway will make you happy, and go "wow"! Much of it will be presented at Blue Mind 4 in Cornwall in June 2014.

    1. Thanks for your comment. Looking forward to being happy and full of 'wow'! Will follow at http://www.wallacejnichols.org/234/531/blue-mind-4-open-the-blue-door.html