Nauticus museum a new anchor for Norfolk waterfront Techno-quarium

August 28, 1994|By John Rivera | John Rivera,Sun Staff Writer

Baltimore's National Aquarium has a new cousin to the south.

In June, Norfolk, Va., opened its own aquatic museum, Nauticus, the National Maritime Center, with the hope it will become the anchor to a revitalized waterfront, much as the National Aquarium is one of the jewels of the Inner Harbor.

Rather than a competitor, the creators of Nauticus see it as a complement to its northern neighbor. While the National Aquarium focuses on marine life and the study of ecosystems, Nauticus concentrates on marine industry: shipbuilding, navigation and the history of the U.S Navy. "You've got the critters and we've got the technology," says James E. Myers, Nauticus' public relations director. No wonder, considering it is located in Hampton Roads, the world's largest natural harbor and the location of the country's oldest and largest shipyard.

Nauticus resembles a futuristic sea-going vessel, kind of like the U.S.S. Enterprise on a dry dock. Described in promotional literature as a "silhouette of a passing ship," the structure juts out into the Elizabeth River.

There is even a resident superhero with his own comic book: Captain Nauticus, leader of a marine posse called the Ocean Force who have been exiled from their home of Aquamar and now live in Nauticus. They seek to apprehend the notorious criminal, Fathom, a villain who uses the powers of the ocean for his own selfish entertainment.

The 160,000 square-foot museum has three decks that feature educational exhibits using the latest in CD-ROM technology. The exhibits are designed to first teach the history and theory of maritime life and then use that knowledge in a "hands-on" practical application.

For example, one section teaches the history of shipbuilding. "You go through the principles of ship design and history, then you go to the shipbuilding interactive and build your own ship," Mr. Myers says. With the help of interactive video, you can design your own ship, choosing among several options of hulls, superstructures and propulsion systems.

If you make the proper choices, a champagne bottle appears to christen your ship and a certificate of completion prints out. If you make the wrong choices, the video explains why your ship won't float.

In one of the more popular exhibits, which explores navigation, there is a wall that details the history of navigation, featuring the voyage of the Nautilus, the first atomic-powered submarine, under the polar icecap. Another section teaches principles of navigating a ship through a channel. Then, you move to a video station to play a navigation game, the object being to steer a 900-foot-long ocean-going cargo vessel into the San Francisco Bay.

The player controls the speed of the vessel and the steering. To make it more realistic, the steering mechanism responds about as slowly as would a real cargo ship. "It drifts just like a real ship does," Mr. Myers says, meaning a player cannot go too fast and must anticipate obstacles, such as shoals, the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz Island. It's harder than it sounds.

A section on weather forecasting offers budding weather persons a chance to put together their own forecast. The video program takes you through each step of preparing a forecast in anticipation of a tornado watch. Then, you can go on-camera, with a real director, and film your forecast, complete with weather graphics -- although the price of a videotape to catch it for posterity is extra.

The uninitiated learn that when weather persons do their forecasts, there's nothing behind them but a blue screen and they have to watch a monitor to see the graphics.

Nauticus is still working out some bugs. On a recent Saturday, several of the exhibits were closed. Some, like the ones demonstrating the principles of water buoyancy, had tanks that were leaking. Others, it was discovered, were not reacting well with interaction. Children, it seems, can be fairly hard on joysticks and other controls.

The waits for the more popular interactive exhibits can be long, and as the museum gets more popular that may become more of a problem. Nauticus may have to go to staggered entrance times, as the National Aquarium does.

And then there is the noise. The exhibit space is cavernous and filled with excited children and adults, all chattering at once. The acoustics are lively, and the noise level can become distracting, especially when you are attempting to listen to the audio in the historical and theoretical exhibits.

To address this, Nauticus officials installed plastic parabolas around the speakers, which concentrate the sound directly down when you stand under them. That helps a lot, but if more than one person wants listen to the audio, you have to huddle under that parabola. It could be a great way to meet people.

For a break from the din, visit the Nauticus Theater, featuring a

70mm, wide-screen production called "The Living Sea," which was produced specially for the maritime center.

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