- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 18, 2001

Take a trip under the sea with the National Museum of Natural History's "Masters of the Ocean Realm" exhibit. The cool blue walls and recorded sounds of dolphins and whales give visitors the impression that they are swimming among the marine life.

The traveling exhibit featuring whales, dolphins and porpoises will be at the Smithsonian Institution museum until Jan. 2. The exhibit showcases the evolution, biology and environment of the cetaceans with plenty of interactive displays that use sight as well as sound.

"We wanted to explore marine mammals in a different way with this exhibit," says John Heyning, deputy director for research and collections at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County and the curator of the exhibit. "Because whales and dolphins are so charismatic, people are naturally interested in them. They serve as ambassadors of the ocean realm."

The exhibit begins with life-size models of various species. Among them are the bottlenose dolphin, which resembles the star of TV's "Flipper"; the Atlantic spotted dolphin; and the orca, commonly called a killer whale, but really a gentle soul that doesn't kill humans.

School-age children will enjoy the fun facts found at the beginning of the exhibit. One recent group took particular note that a blue whale can grow to be 100 feet long and his tongue can weigh as much as an elephant.

One of the most surprising evolutionary lessons is how cetaceans came to be. The closest living relatives to dolphins and whales, the exhibit explains, are hoofed animals such as horses and cows. Scientists discovered that link by examining fossils and DNA. The exhibit explains the evolutionary timeline in simple terms.

Off in one corner is an old-fashioned jukebox, where visitors can hear "tunes" by, among others, the Fine Young Mammals, Englebert Humpbackdink and the Talking Melon-head. These puns are really ways to invite visitors to hear the sounds made by various species and compare them.

After learning about the biology and physical characteristics of dolphins and whales, visitors can test their knowledge in the "Who am I?" game, an interactive game in which players must identify which cetaceans have one blowhole or two, or which has teeth and which has baleen, stringy hair that acts as a net for catching plankton.

The baleen gets its own display in the section on how whales feed and again in the section on whale products and their use by man through history. Baleen formerly was used to make items such as corsets and buckets.

The latter part of the exhibit is devoted to whales and dolphins in history. The mystique of the sea creatures has been celebrated in the art of ancient Greece and in the idols of the Tlingits, an Indian tribe in Alaska. Examples of pottery from Crete and wooden carved images from Alaska are displayed in the exhibit.

There are, of course, societies that depended on whaling to support their economy. In 18th- and 19th-century New England, for instance, whaling provided oil for candles and baleen for a variety of uses. The Eskimos also depended on whales, using many parts of the animal for fuel, food and hunting tools.

The displays on whaling economy, which is heavily regulated, segue into discussions of the environment and the ethics of hunting animals. Displays give tips on how to recycle materials and save energy, thereby reducing man's effect on ocean creatures and their habitat. A thought-provoking final display is a TV monitor that offers both sides of the whale-hunting debate.

"We are trying to show it is not just about biology," Mr. Heyning says. "It is about man's relationship with whales and dolphins over time. We are using whales and dolphins to convey issues about conservation, pollution and evolution."

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