Humans have explored less than 10% of the ocean, and what we’ve found — lifeforms that no one suspected, not merely surviving but thriving in conditions we were sure could never sustain life — suggest that the best, or rather the strangest, is yet to come.
The Deep Oceans exhibit at the Australian Museum in Sydney (in partnership with Questacon, the National Science and Technology Centre in Canberra, where the exhibit heads to next) offers a tantalising glimpse into this alien world.
Visitors will see some arresting specimens, learn some fascinating facts and even experience the claustrophobia of the first humans to descend into the depths inside a cramped steel ball.
In terms of atmosphere, Deep Oceans definitely delivers. The dim blue lighting and the ambient sound work together to create an immersive experience that’s probably as close as you can get to the deep sea without getting salt water in your hair.
Likewise, some of the items on display manage to convey this sense of immersion – particularly the bathysphere, a replica of an original deep-sea vessel. Inside, one can peer out the portholes at projections of captivating creatures, listen to recordings of real deep-sea dispatches and contemplate the experience of being shut up into a steel trap with no loo, and lowered ever so slowly into a dark and alien world.
The recordings are a particular treat: one can hear the first-ever deep-sea explorer alongside a more recent adventurer, the Australian Museum’s own Nerida Wilson. Combined with the experience of being curled up inside the bathysphere, one gets something of the flavour and significance of the experience – the wonder and the profound discomfort.
Ocean exploration has come a long way since that first historic dive in 1934. Visitors can see just how far by taking in some of the modern tools of the trade on display, like a camera from the submersible Alvin.
They can also check out several interactive games and items that impart deep-sea knowledge in novel ways. In one display, one can turn a crank and watch the descent of marine ‘snow’ while learning about what it really is (hint: it’s not snow).
Another game invites visitors to match the larvae of oceanic animals to their mature counterparts, with potentially surprising results. Probably the most memorable interactive experience in the exhibit is the one in which visitors are invited to “touch the light” — any more and the surprise would be spoilt.
Given the difficulties involved in bringing deep-sea creatures to the surface, there is a fairly impressive menagerie on display, with some very lifelike models to round it out. You can check out a substantial chunk of a colossal squid’s tentacle, and several specimens of different anglerfish species, arranged around a model so monstrous you’ll be glad it’s not real.
Difficult creatures to represent, such as the ‘extremophiles’ – micro-organisms that thrive at the hydrothermal vents – are at least acknowledged with informational displays. And there is some beautiful media to be seen: for the discerning voyeur, there’s an excellent series of photos — the first ever taken — of mating humpback whales.
Those with little to no knowledge of the astounding discoveries scientists have made over the past decade will be thrilled with what they find. But armchair marine biologists might walk away feeling like they didn’t get much new insight into that strange and captivating world.
See the Deep Oceans exhibit in Sydney or Canberra:
SYDNEY: Australian Museum
6 College St, Sydney NSW 2010
16 June – 14 October 2012
9.30am to 5pm daily
CANBERRA: The next stop is Questacon, in Canberra, in December.