There are certain aspects of life that we never seem to lose, even when the years start piling up behind us. One of these is our fascination with the natural world. Another is our innate desire to keep advancing and exploring new ground. In school, we learned the term Manifest Destiny, and in addition to the western landscape, we always seem to want to explore the limits of human ingenuity. National Geographic Encounter: Ocean Odyssey combines these two timeless aspects of our human experience.
Imagine being able to say that you saw a humpback whale swim past you in Times Square. Well, you’ll have to preface it by explaining it was a digital whale. However, with 3-D glasses, and authentic recordings echoing through the gallery located right in the theater district, one might chalk it up to global warming or just another phenomenon in the city that doesn’t sleep.
After paying the New York style ticket price of $39.50 for adults and $32.50 for children, the visitors are immersed in a video reminiscent of any National Geographic nature show introductory promo. Next, visitors are shipped off to a room where digital rays and other fish swim around actually avoiding the human feet that invades their pixel ocean.
Next, as if peering into a sub-floor aquarium, visitors can see dolphins diving down to explore the sandy depths among coral and the wealth of fish that utilize their trompe-l’oeil paradise. Later, through the use of motion sensors, visitors can stand in front of their own “pet” seal, in a likewise underwater aquarium window, and train it to turn, dive, flip, and peer curiously into the fourth wall.
The room of bio-luminescence transports the visitor to the world of the coral reef at night, or some fairy tale dream where new age music accompanies the undulating mermaids and the gentle sway of seaweed. Here, the floor glows with every footstep, as if our avatars were leaping through the forest floor of Pandora. Despite the visual over-stimulation, there is so much to learn about the elusive world beneath us, and the Ocean Odyssey delivers answers to the questions of which we had not yet thought.
Then came the war of the giant squids. Surrounded by a continual canape of screens, the viewer feels as if he/she is eye witness to survival of the fittest, humbled by the violence and enamored of the technology. Donning virtual scuba gear, the visitors stand and view the jetting of the squids as if trying to follow the movement of a racquetball. The lesson here is that we are small in the presence of ancient creatures, adapted to survive the millennia, yet every line of code is mans’.
The final rooms present the objective. Panels with facts and video presentations provided the answers to the scavenger hunt handout the younger visitors are given. With parents along as lifelines, the young explorers make their way to the finish line, an interactive gallery whose message is conservation and environmental protection. The juxtaposition of touch screen computers and coloring books with crayons remind us that as we swim into the 21st century, there is always the undertow of simple truths: we will always be curious, the environment will always need protecting, and there is always hope for renewal.