Hooking the spectators

September 18, 1995|By Gary Gately | Gary Gately,SUN STAFF

David Pittenger stands on a boulder amid the steamy confines of the National Aquarium's rain forest, one of his favorite places to chill out, and weighs a few possibilities.

Imagine, the aquarium's executive director says, a storm rolling in -- thunderclaps, lightning, heavy rains. For the benefit of the visitors, of course, with a little help from special effects like strobes, artificial fog, torrents of water falling onto the trees, even a little on the walkways.

"Just enough to get people wet, then the storm would pass," Mr. Pittenger says.

Or consider the appeal of jellyfish -- not washed up on the beach or jolting unsuspecting swimmers, but in an exhibit that shows them as humans rarely see them.

"I tell you, jellyfish are great," Mr. Pittenger says with a gleam in his eyes. "What you see is this kind of gooky thing lying on the beach, but when you combine the proper lighting and sound and see these animals moving, they're so graceful. It's almost otherworldly if you can capture that."

And the Chesapeake Bay, subject of endless hand-wringing, and inspiration for the "Save the Bay" mantra? The aquarium could depict, in graphic terms, man's toll on the God-given treasure, with side-by-side exhibits showing once-pristine habitats with clear waters next to the murky bay beset by pollution and overfishing.

The ideas keep coming, as they must, if the visitors are to keep coming, says Mr. Pittenger, who took the helm at the aquarium in January.

The popularity of the National Aquarium in Baltimore -- crown jewel of the Inner Harbor, destination for more than 20 million visitors in its 14 years -- presents a paradoxical challenge: The aquarium, now so familiar to residents of the area, needs to constantly look for ways to keep visitors coming back.

"It's probably our greatest challenge: 'Been there, done that,' " Mr. Pittenger says.

A recent survey conducted by the aquarium bears that out. Asked why they hadn't returned for a few years, Mr. Pittenger says, many responded, " 'Well, we're waiting for something new.' They're not sure what it is, but they need something new."

They'll get it, Mr. Pittenger says, but he's unsure precisely what and when. The director and the aquarium's governing board have just begun sifting through ideas for the next decade to maintain the appeal among return visitors, create new revenue sources and foster the education and conservation missions.

The jellyfish exhibit, which could open by next spring, may be among the earliest likely additions to Maryland's most popular paid attraction.

It would be one of a series of two-year changing exhibits -- possibly including sharks and venomous, deep-sea creatures -- and help launch what Mr. Pittenger hopes will become a partnership with other aquariums.

The New England Aquarium in Boston would provide the jellyfish, as part of a partnership that would involve exchange of exhibits, specimens and expertise with other aquariums. Mr. Pittenger is also considering working with aquariums in Chicago, Monterey, Calif., New Orleans and Chattanooga, Tenn., none of which compete directly with Baltimore's.

Chattanooga's aquarium, for instance, manufactures its own T-shirts, and could easily create ones for Baltimore's as part of a business partnership, Mr. Pittenger says. The National Aquarium, turn, could sell its videos, CD-ROMs and other products at other aquariums. A line of home-aquarium products, such as sea salt used in water, could be licensed by Baltimore's aquarium and sold at others in the nation.

Licensing products and seeking a broader market for National Aquarium items such as a toy frog that includes a message about saving the rain forest would not only increase revenue but also boost the aquarium's name-recognition nationwide, Mr. -Z Pittenger says.

Another possible answer, he says, is the information superhighway. Mr. Pittenger and the aquarium's board are hashing out how they should present the attraction on the World Wide Web of the Internet. Beyond providing an introduction to the aquarium, the "web site" could offer computer users information on rain forests, coral reefs and conservation efforts.

Mr. Pittenger, 46, who was named executive director in December 1994, takes the education and conservation goals of the aquarium seriously.

To him, the aquarium serves as a gigantic classroom for the masses, a place to gaze at the creatures -- and to walk out a bit more aware of what imperils them.

He learned to appreciate them as a kid who collected snakes and spent his summers at a Philadelphia wildlife preserve; as a college student working summers as a naturalist and teacher caring for raccoons, owls and reptiles at the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences; as a diving addict exploring the reefs off New Jersey, Florida and the Bahamas; and as a ranger in Florida's Everglades.

At the aquarium, Mr. Pittenger says, education masquerades as entertainment.

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