New show opens soon at aquarium

ON YOUR LEFT, THE EXOTIC LASER FISH

November 18, 1993|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,Staff Writer

Suppose 1.5 million people were coming over to see your fish collection but you had already drained the biggest tank for repairs and sent the fish packing.

Faced with just that situation, the National Aquarium in Baltimore has hired a stand-in act called "ImaginOcean" to entertain visitors while its Atlantic Coral Reef and Open Ocean ring tanks are undergoing $12.7 million in repairs.

The $500,000 laser light show fills the spiral walkways of the empty ring tanks with birds and fish hatched in a computer hard drive.

The custom-designed display at Pier 3 opens to the public the day after Thanksgiving and will run for the 12 to 14 months needed for the renovations. It was previewed yesterday after a frenetic, monthlong installation by its New York creator, Levitan Design Associates, and its builder, Laser Fantasy International of Bellevue, Wash.

"Nothing has ever been attempted on this level of complexity," said an exultant Nicholas Brown, the aquarium's executive director. "We know that visitors will share our sense of wonder at ImaginOcean's incredible world."

A laser show, video coral reefs, painted murals and original music combine in an exhibit so complex that only about half its 40 animated laser creatures were up and running in time for the preview.

The computerized fish will replace close to 1,000 live specimens, including the popular sharks, that lived in the ring tanks' 555,000 gallons of water. The tank repairs are needed, officials say, to fix structural damage caused by saltwater, replace the deteriorating artificial coral reefs and upgrade the life-support systems.

A few of the captive sharks were released into the Atlantic last month. Other fish were lent to the Maritime Center in Norwalk, Conn.

The rest have been moved to other aquarium displays, to the Aquaculture Research Center scheduled to open tomorrow in Fells Point or to a storage aquarium on Aliceanna Street.

ImaginOcean gives visitors something to look at and listen to while they walk down the ramp that winds through the center of the closed shark tanks. It begins beyond the rooftop rain forest exhibit and ends at the windows for the stingray pool on the first level.

At the top, visitors will see a 55-foot mural of a mangrove swamp painted by artist Sally J. Bensusen of Washington, D.C.

Almost everything from there on is bathed in black light, which illuminates the lint on visitors' clothes, along with elements of the display.

As the ramp descends into the "ocean," colorful laser line drawings of pelicans, spoonbills, breaking waves and barrier-reef fish begin to flutter and swirl across the walls of the tanks.

The tank windows have been covered and transformed into projection screens enhanced with silk-screened coral and plant life.

Farther down the ramp, more deep-water creatures appear.

The laser light originates in a cluttered corner of the aquarium's attic, now crammed with computers, optical gear and audio controls.

Dan Lawrence, a 23-year-old technician with Laser Fantasy, said all the laser light for the exhibit is generated by a single 3.5-watt laser in a black, bathtub-sized box.

Inside that box, the laser light is split into 26 beams and electronically tuned to a variety of colors. It is then "launched" from the room on 4,000 feet of fiber-optic cables to 26 laser scanners in the exhibit area.

At the same time, Mr. Lawrence said, a bank of 14 computers in the attic control room transmits the digital instructions that control the laser beams and "draw" the animated creatures on the walls.

The birds flap their wings and fly. Storm clouds gather, and rain falls. Whales breech and dive. And fish swim into the foreground, turn and swim away again.

"Most laser [shows] are special-effects kinds of things," Mr. Levitan said. "But I wanted a company that was not just into special effects, but into story-telling."

Laser beams would pose a danger to visitors' eyes at places where the walkway adjoins the walls. There, Mr. Levitan has installed 22 TV screens in oval portholes to create a kind of video aquarium showing fish life on a coral reef.

The video was shot off the Bahamas and Key West, Fla., by Baltimore filmmakers Nick Caloyianis and Clarita Berger.

The display is accompanied by woodwind music composed by Dr. Thomas Benjamin, a professor of music theory and composition at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, and performed by members of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

Admission to the aquarium is unchanged during the renovations. The cost is $7.50 for children under 12, $11.50 for adults and $9.50 for those over 60.

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