Laser animation will fill in during aquarium overhaul

October 06, 1993|By Steve McKerrow | Steve McKerrow,Staff Writer

Can a laser image of a hammerhead shark convey the fierce efficiency of the real, swimming thing?

No. On the other hand, at least you can touch it safely.

The National Aquarium in Baltimore offered a preview yesterday of the "ImaginOcean" laser animation show that will soon replace the "Atlantic Coral Reef" and "Open Ocean" exhibits as a $12.7 million, 14-month repair job on deteriorating concrete tanks is undertaken.

"We hope that we can get the message out that, though different, we're just as good," Nicholas Brown, aquarium direc

tor, said at a news conference demonstration of the sophisticated technology.

The computer-coordinated laser display opens Nov. 26 and will run until the reopening of the tanks in spring 1995. Portions of the shark and reef tanks will gradually be covered up beginning Oct. 18.

In the new exhibit, vinyl screens with marine backdrops in fluorescent paint will encircle the viewing windows and walls of the cylindrical tanks.

A black light effect will evoke the shimmer of subsurface scenes, as moving laser images of 40 or more sea species swim over hTC them. Also, a 6-minute musical score by Thomas Benjamin of the Peabody Conservatory has been commissioned to play continuously.

As visitors walk down through the spiral display, the creatures depicted will change appropriately with the depths -- shallow swimming reef fish above, and larger, deeper dwellers, such as sharks and octopuses, below.

And visitors will be allowed to touch the walls.

"As a laser show goes, this is very controlled. We are doing the animals as they actually appear," says Leonard Levitan, whose New York firm, Levitan Design Associates, created the show with Laser Fantasy International.

Yet while drawn from analysis of real creatures' movements, the images are not intended to be realistic, he says. Indeed, the swimming hammerhead shark seen in the short demonstration is evoked as a spare outline in green light.

Neither display captions nor voice narration are planned to tell visitors exactly what they are seeing, but Mr. Brown says aquarium staff members and volunteers will be posted throughout the exhibit to answer questions.

The laser show is costing approximately $500,000, says the director. Another $250,000 is going toward new exhibits to supplement the laser scenes with images of more realism.

Around the walls, 22 glass portholes will also offer film footage of real sea life, as shot on Atlantic reefs by Baltimore-based underwater filmmakers Nick Caloyianis and Clarita Berger.

Further, some of the coral reef fish will be moved to new tanks near the exhibit exit, and some of the smaller sharks will be added to the aquarium's central water "tray," in which rays now swim.

The current residents of the reef and shark tanks -- 700 to 800 reef fish and almost two dozen sharks -- will be moved elsewhere during the repairs, Mr. Brown says.

Some sharks will be lent to other aquariums, and four will be tagged and released back into the ocean off Lewes, Del.

But the majority of creatures will be moved into and tended at a holding tank being constructed in a warehouse in Fells Point until their return to the aquarium.

The holding facility will not be open to the public.

Although the coral reef and shark tanks have been a central attraction of the aquarium since its opening in August 1981, Mr. Brown says admission will not be lowered during the construction period.

He notes that fees have remained steady for more than two years, while new exhibits have been added.

"We feel that we will continue to be good value for the money," he says. Other officials say only about 15 percent of the facility's animal collection occupies the tanks to be drained, and the average visitor spends just 15 to 20 minutes in the reef and shark area.

However, for about two weeks preceding the opening of "ImaginOcean" -- when all windows to the exhibits will be blocked and the new display is being installed and tested -- each visitor will receive a coupon good for $3 off a return visit.

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