A scene from Unseen Oceans, a new exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History.
Photo: AMNH

NEW YORK—From the moment you step from the cacophonous, bright halls of the American Natural History Museum into its new ocean exhibit, it’s clear how disorienting life under the sea is.

The door to Unseen Oceans, a new exhibit, opens onto a foyer awash in digital waves projected on the floor. You literally have to walk into them to enter the exhibit. From there, you’re transported into a world of microscopic organisms, fluorescent fish, and a deep sea room that resembles Tron.

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My first impression walking through the exhibit was that it felt like a bit of an acid trip, moving between rooms bathed in darkened blues and greens. Glowing plankton dangle over your head in one room while ethereal ocean sounds follow you through another. But after exiting into the bright lights of the gift shop, I realized that the hallucinogenic feeling was more about our relationship with the sea than psychedelics.

The reason oceans feel trippy is because they’re so different from our life on land. Despite being essential to life on Earth, most humans rarely interact with them much beyond the surf. Unseen Oceans looks to change that, and with rapid advances in technology for observing the seas and making bad ass museum exhibits, it has a lot to work with. Everyday people are able to go along for the ride with scientists whether its exploring geothermal vents or otherworldly jellyfish that occupy the depths from the comfort of their phone screens, or if you’re lucky enough to visit New York before January 2019, at AMNH.

“[The oceans] are the last great frontier on Earth,” AMNH president Ellen Futter said at a press event. “This is the golden age of marine exploration.”

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Seahorses twist in the currents. Other live exhibits include eels, plankton and various types of fish.
Photo: Brian Kahn

Unseen Oceans reveals how scientists are making discoveries, and puts them in a context that shows why they matter to all of us on land: The oceans provide essential life support—food, air, a habitable climate—for all 7 billion humans. The first thing you see after clearing the waves is a blown up image of plankton, microscopic sea plants, and sign letting you know they produce 50 percent of the oxygen we breathe. They also sit at the base of the food chain. AMNH curator Mark Siddall referred to them as “the potato chips of the sea because they feed so much of the ocean.”

Elsewhere, the exhibit tantalizes the senses. The sight of fluorescent fish and the Tron seafloor (I know, I know I keep mentioning it, but it was really cool, OK?) draw you from room to room. You can touch an amazing sand table with a projection that morphs to show water as you dig into it or land if you pile it up. And sounds of the sea echo throughout the exhibit halls.

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Styrofoam cups lowered to the depths of the sea for science. Drawings on them apparently to relieve boredom and/or scratch an artistic itch.
Photo: Brian Kahn

The exhibit also jostles the imagination by showing what pressure does to Styrofoam cups, a vivid illustration of the powers of the sea and the surprising techniques scientist use to study it.

There are also interactive games that let you steer a remote operated vehicle through a reef, so you can take part in the same discovery process scientists are using to understand our coral reefs (pro tip: Emily, our intrepid social media editor, got motion sick, so maybe pop a Dramamine before you partake if you’re “not good at first person pov games”).

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The exhibit opens right as there’s been a surge in oceanic interest. BBC’s wildly popular Blue Planet just finished its second season and a number of research cruises are now livestreaming their explorations of the deep with thousands of viewers tuning in in real time.

Emily exploring the deep pre-motion sickness.
Photo: Brian Kahn

“We’re hearing about climate change and its effects on the ocean,” John Sparks, the curator of the new exhibit, said, noting that learning more about how threatened our planet’s most precious collective resource is could be driving some of that interest. Also, the ocean is just really freaking beautiful.

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After walking through the exhibit and stepping out into the harsh glare of life above the water, I was ready to go back underwater and explore all over again.

Digital waves.
Photo: Brian Kahn

Unseen Oceans opens to the public on Monday, March 12.

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