- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 30, 2007

Swimming in the ocean, diving under ice, roaming the jungle, even looking for food in an alley in the District. It’s an animal’s life, and National Geographic is giving visitors the chance to see what animals see as they hunt for food, look for mates or just play.

“National Geographic Crittercam: The World Through Animal Eyes,” running at the National Geographic Museum at Explorers Hall through Jan. 2, is the result of a project that has spanned almost 20 years. National Geographic marine biologist Greg Marshall pioneered the technique of attaching a camera to an animal. The camera sent back live video feeds, and scientists were able to gain a unique perspective.

“Crittercam is a unique point of view,” Mr. Marshall says on a taped video display at the start of the exhibit. “It helps us understand and care about these magnificent animals.”

The exhibit is divided into sections based on animal groups. Among them: sea turtles, sharks, land animals, penguins and whales.

A skeptic — or a phobic — might ask, “How did they get close enough to mount a camera on a shark?” They did, and the results are a viewpoint not seen since the star of “Jaws” stalked its prey.

C. Mike Shepard says in museum materials that cameras were attached by a tether and later a fin clamp. The scientists used a seal decoy to attract sharks to the boat, then used a pole to attach the crittercam.

They were then able to see how sharks hunted their prey and what drew them to a reef. The shark display, like all of the sections of the exhibit, is full of video coverage, including silent crittercam feeds, scientists’ narratives and short clips that answer particular questions.

The section on land animals covers a wide variety of wildlife. There is a dog’s-eye view of a black Lab running and playing, a bird’s-eye view from a bald eagle, and a bear roaming at Yosemite.

The most basic and local animal — Molly, a Dupont Circle alley cat — gets as much attention as the most exotic sea life. Visitors, for better or worse, will feel as if they are crouched in the alley with the cat as she hunts and eats a rat in the dark of night, images that might disturb young children.

Visitors can press buttons to see clips of lions in Africa, but again, some young children might not like the image of a family of lions lunching on a zebra. A more viewer-friendly clip for them would be one of a black bear napping.

Not to worry, though. Most of the exhibit is hands-on and very family-friendly. The youngest visitors can play with stuffed animals and attach stuffed crittercams to them. They can crawl under the “ice” at the penguin section and see themselves on a crittercam. They can sit on a model of a sea turtle to view video footage.

In the whale section, 5-foot-tall columns of undulating bubbles simulate what it is like for whales as they search for food. The columns imitate the “bubble nets” in which whales feed. With the movement of the bubbles, which also play on a video overhead, and the taped feeding calls of the whales, visitors will feel as if they are on the hunt for herring in Chatham Strait, Alaska.

The final section of the exhibit looks at the cameras themselves and how they evolved during the past 20 years.

Mr. Marshall explains that he got the idea when scuba diving off Belize in 1986. He saw a remora — a suckerfish — attach itself to the side of a shark that was approaching Mr. Marshall.

“Instead of worrying about the shark, I imagined the unique perspective of the remora,” Mr. Marshall says. “I thought, ‘What if I could use a camera to mimic the remora?’ ”

Mr. Marshall then built a prototype and attached it to a captive sea turtle, which did not seem to mind the camera.

Displays at the exhibit show how the cameras work, the various ways they are attached to the animals — the penguins are so cute wearing backpack-style harnesses that keep their crittercams in place — and how they relieve the animals of camera duty. After the animal wears the camera for a period of time, a remote release is activated, the display explains. Embedded transmitters emit a signal so the crew can locate the camera floating in the ocean, for example, or lying in the woods.

When you go:

Location: “National Geographic Crittercam: The World Through Animal Eyes” is on display at the National Geographic Museum at Explorers Hall, 1145 17th St. NW, Washington, through Jan. 2.

Admission: Free

Hours: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday. Closed Dec. 25.

Parking: Street, meter and garage parking are nearby.

More information: Call 202/857-7588 or visit www. nationalgeographic.com/ museum/

Events: The museum will host Crittercam Day from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Oct. 13. The event will include screenings of three films by Crittercam inventor Greg Marshall, plus visits with live animals from Busch Gardens. Admission is free.

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