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Unseen Oceans at the Natural History Museum Celebrates a Golden Age of Marine Exploration

March 9, 2018 - by Linda Sheridan
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Unseen Oceans, a fascinating, hands-on exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History opening March 12, helps visitors grasp two thingshow little we still know about life under our oceans (only about 10%-15% is mapped out, according to Curator John Sparks) and how crucial it is not to underestimate the importance of the micro-organisms that live there. Climate change is putting them in jeopardy, and this could greatly impact our ability to breathe clean air.

The objective of Unseen Oceans is to stimulate curiosity and to educate, especially the next generation of marine life biologists. The show is smartly organized in a circular series of galleries and stations, showcasing a myriad range of sea creatures big and small. There are also displays on tools and friendly bios of scientists, explaining the work they do. Kaitlyn Becker, for example, is a soft robotics engineer who creates tools to help marine biologists "gain a better understanding of the deep-sea environment."

Plankton

The oceans' sunlit zone is inhabited by plankton, organisms that sustain nearly all marine life. Despite their small size, plankton forms are remarkably diverse. Photo: AMNH/R. Mickens.

At one station, countless models of plankton are on display, at eye level and floating above, each one stranger than the next. However small they seem, the plankton play a crucial role in drawing in the majority of the carbon dioxide that's in the atmosphere over the oceans. They either convert it via photosynthesis into oxygen and are eaten as food, or they sink into the ocean floor when they die. But with the very real threat of climate change, even a small shift in the plankton dying off can have disastrous results, decreasing our oxygen supply.

Thanks to improved technology of specialized lights and cameras over the past five years, scientists have also discovered biofluorescence in hundreds of fish and other species! These creatures absorb light, and then re-emit it in a glowing color. During Curator John Sparks' travels with Museum Research Associate David Gruber and his team in a submersible off the coast of Brazil last year, they "bumped" into some sea sponges, which then promptly lit up. It was something that hadn't been seen before, Sparks noted.

It's the "golden age of marine exploration," says AMNH President Ellen Futter. "Today, a new generation of marine scientists with a pioneering spirit of ingenuity and adventure, and an explosion of technological advances, are...yielding astonishing discoveries at dark and mysterious depths."

Unseen Oceans sandtable

Visitors experience ocean topography firsthand, as they dig trenches and create islands in an interactive projection sand table. Photo: AMNH/D. Finnin.

One gallery features a scientifically accurate recreation of an undersea landscape from the Galápagos seamount chain. At another exhibit station, kids can use their hands in a giant lit sandtable to shape their own terrain-developing islands and sea trenches.

Triton Submersible

A partial replica of a Triton subersible provides a great photo op for inspired explorers. PHoto: AMNH/D. Finnin.

The exhibit culminates in a theater with footage, captured by the BBC & OCEANX, of Sparks and the team going down in a submersible some four miles, to the darkest depths of the ocean floor. It's truly breathtaking, even eerie. Inspired deep sea explorers can then take a seat in a display Triton submersible for a photo op. 

Unseen Oceans runs through Jan. 6, 2019. For more information, visit amnh.org.

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