- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 9, 2000

''Ocean Oasis," the new Imax documentary opening Thursday at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History, is a whale of a film — sumptuous in color and scope. Modern photography's many skills explore with outright adoration a sea and landscape unfamiliar to most Americans.

The title refers to the rich ocean life in the Sea of Cortes. The sea borders the Mexican state of Baja California, the peninsula that stretches south of the California border for 700 miles, where whales, among many other of nature's imposing creatures, flock in seasonal migration.

If anything, too many of these magnificent mammals are shown, especially for viewers who already know them from scenes of whale-watching expeditions along other coasts. That hardly is a drawback in appreciating their majesty, and "Ocean Oasis" goes one better in showing a dead whale slowly descending to the depths to become fodder for other inhabitants of the sea — what an upbeat narrator calls "giving new life to others."

Whales are the largest of many gorgeous species examined with the camera's loving eye. Not quite so adorable are the sharks, which, nevertheless, command respect from the agile diver-narrator. She tells us it is necessary to make them respect her.

We also are treated close up to the rompings and ravings of elephant bull seals, the curious relationship between terns and gulls on land, and the feeding rituals of osprey. But scenes of life at night under the sea may be the most spectacular. As a moray eel stalks its prey, we learn the eel is "almost blind but can smell like a bloodhound." And who can resist the explosion of color when tropical fish swim among coral reefs?

On the desert terrain inland, we learn about the kangaroo rat, whose only water supply comes from its prey, and cactus plants that conserve their energy by blooming once every several hundred years.

Typical of such large-scale pictorials, rain and clouds never interfere with idyllic glimpses of teeming wildlife and fierce beauty of a harsh, uninhabited land. In what is now an unavoidable cliche, a helicopter and camera swoop among the vastness of mountain ranges for some stomach-chilling shots.

Another dimension of the $5 million, 38-minute spectacular is its reminder of the fragile nature of such an amazing ecosystem when threatened by encroachments from civilization. Producers of the project, a collaborative effort by the San Diego Natural History Museum and the Mexican conservation organization Pronatura, leave no doubt about their motive. "The seas and skies will endure without us, but we won't endure without them" is the message flashed onto the screen at the close.

"Ocean Oasis" will be shown five times daily in the Samuel C. Johnson Theater, 10th Street and Constitution Avenue NW. For theater schedules and ticket information, call 202/633-7400. Tickets cost $6.50 for adults, $5.50 for children ages 2 to 17 and $4.50 for seniors.

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