Journey into the sea Treasure trove: 'Deep Sea Treasures,' an interactive exhibit, shows the wonders of antiquity and technology.

January 28, 1996|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN STAFF

In the yawning void of the deep Atlantic, caught in the darkness between heaven and earth, are creatures stranger than any that might swim into a child's wildest dreams.

Some of those creatures are now making an appearance above the surface -- in an interactive exhibit that opened yesterday at the Maryland Science Center.

"Deep Sea Treasures," which runs through May 19, takes visitors on a simulated journey through a world without light, where temperatures are just above freezing and the water pressure is enough to crush a human body.

It focuses on strange, monstrous creatures that live in the frigid waters of the deep -- and the scientific equipment used to explore the worlds they inhabit.

It also showcases a colorful array of gold, silver, ceramics and other artifacts recovered from 17th-century shipwrecks off the coast of Florida.

"The public's interest in this subject never wanes," said Patrick Doyle, an exhibits consultant who installed the show last week. "People always want to see what has been brought up from the ocean floor. Everyone is intrigued because of the mystery."

The exhibit was created by the Museum of Science and Industry in Tampa, Fla., using the underwater collection of another Florida attraction that no longer is in operation. It has toured the country for the past seven years and was refurbished before its arrival in Baltimore.

Its title, Mr. Doyle explained, refers to a different type of treasure than one might expect.

"Even though we have artifacts from the deep," he said, "the main treasure is the technology" -- the scientific equipment used to explore below the surface.

Interactive components include hands-on examples of diving bells, sonar and robotic contraptions that can scour the ocean floor.

They show why camera-equipped machines have replaced humans in many underwater expeditions -- as they have in outer space.

When exploring 200 feet or more below the surface, "it's too decadent to send a person down," Mr. Doyle said. "It's much less expensive to send a robot. That's why there has been an explosion of ROVs -- remote operated vehicles. They're cheaper to build, and they cost less to maintain. You can explore more for fewer bucks."

One highlight of the exhibit is a display of findings of the Seahawk Retriever, an exploration vehicle that uncovered a Spanish galleon that sank in a hurricane off the Florida Keys about 1622.

A documentary shows how deep sea investigators used a robotic vehicle called Merlin to photograph and probe the sunken vessel, in accordance with accepted archaeological procedures, and transport artifacts to the surface.

In addition to bars of 23-karat gold and "pieces of eight" -- silver coins worth eight "reals," a unit of Spanish money -- the Seahawk crew uncovered olive jars, dishes, glass beads, sounding weights, copper ingots and other valuable artifacts.

"They're in incredibly good shape, considering that they've been down in the ocean for so long," Mr. Doyle said.

Visitors can peer through portholes of a simulated submarine, climb a ladder and stick their heads in a diver's helmet, and manipulate the arms of a robot to pick up simulated minerals from the ocean depths.

"I got it!" shouted 7-year-old Eric Stiegerwald, a second-grader from Baltimore County who had been trying for 10 minutes to maneuver the arms of his robot to pick up a small gray brick. "Now how do I make it let go?"

Another exhibit allows youngsters to feel the temperature of deep water -- 2 to 4 degrees Celsius.

"That's cold," squealed Cindy Pyles, 6, of Linthicum. "I wouldn't want to swim in that."

"Deep Sea Treasures" was the second marine exhibit the Manning family of Timonium visited yesterday.

"We went to the National Aquarium this morning," said Jean Manning, who came with her children, Brandon, 8, and Jonathan, 4. "Then we came to the Science Center. We're getting a double dose of underwater life, but the two exhibits complement each other pretty well."

Maris St. Cyr, the Science Center's marketing director, said the organization mounts three or four traveling exhibits a year and that "Deep Sea Treasures" cost about $30,000 to install.

During the next 3 1/2 months, 175,000 people are expected to view the exhibit, including numerous school groups.

"Kids love looking through the portholes," Ms. St. Cyr said. "They enjoy touching and feeling the ocean water. Another big attraction seems to be putting their heads in the diver's helmet."

In effect, Mr. Doyle said, "Deep Sea Treasures" provides an overview of several layers of technology -- from the sunken ships of the 1600s to the robotic vehicles used today to unearth them.

The Maryland Science Center, at 601 Light St. in downtown Baltimore, is open Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Admission is $8.50 for adults and $6.50 for children ages 4 to 17, seniors and military personnel. Information: 685-5225.

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