“Did we already look at the Great Lakes animals?” Gwen asked, glancing around. Shedd Aquarium’s unique architecture, designed around a rotunda that served as the hub, was both simple to navigate and easy to get turned around in.
“Yeah, that’s where the huge crabs are,” Dania said. “And the eel petting.”
“Eel petting was in the Australian wing,” Eleanor corrected.
“What about this one?”
Dania was pointing to a relatively bright room, off to the side of the main hall. Almost no signage indicated what the room contained, save for a two word title treatment affixed on the wall.
“Wild Reef,” Gwen read, before glancing into the room. “Is it downstairs?”
“I think we go into the elevators,” Eleanor said.
No aquarium staff seemed anywhere nearby, although a group of children was crowded around a wall-mounted screen containing footage of jellyfish.
“Look at the jellies!” Dania bolted to the wall, just as a larger jelly was soaring towards the top.
Gwen, following, noticed the plaque affixed adjacent to it: “Dive Into An Offshore Wonderland…”
“Oh, they’re real!” Eleanor suddenly pronounced. Sure enough, the seemingly flat screen was, in fact, a vertical tank of real jellies.
“It’s the lure, to get people into the Wild Reef,” Dania suggested.
“Well, it worked.”
In the bright room, they waited for the elevator. When its doors finally opened, they were surprised to find the skylight above the waiting area had been replicated inside the elevator. Rather than real sky, though, here the light was only a glass photo of clouds.
“Cheery,” Gwen commented.
On the ground floor, the first thing they heard was the rush of wave against rock. They stepped out and saw, at the end of the hallway, a seemingly freestanding bank of reef stones, half submerged in water.
“Rocks are my favorite kind of coral reef,” Dania added dryly, as they advanced down the hall. Just as they were close enough to read the exhibit’s signage, the water roared anew, cascading through the crags and transforming to bubbles under the surface.
“That’s awesome,” Eleanor said. She quickly moved to the far right side of the glass, hoping to catch a glimpse of the mechanism that created these authentically false tides. But nothing could be seen.
“It’s in that rock.” Eleanor indicated the tall rock at center, where the glass curved. “It’s some hydraulic thing.”
“Come away, you’re going to get splashed,” Gwen warned.
Though the tank was open, the dry floor gave no indication of prior spillage. Impressive, Eleanor considered.
Dania, for her part, was crouched at the glass, watching as the surf tore through the still water below, the bubbles rising to the surface.
“This is such a cool intro,” Eleanor said. “Not to mention, more sunlight.” She indicated the skylight, stretching up to the street level above.
“Yeah, it only gets darker from here – woah!”
Dania had looked towards the next room, to indicate their coming descent into darkness, when the sight of a seven-foot tall green polyp of coral stopped her.
“This looks like a Disneyland queue,” Eleanor mused, glancing down at the tiled floor. The polyp itself could be illuminated with a series of buttons, which a small child was absolutely going to town on at the moment. Dania silently considered how long the child would hog the area, before she and Eleanor could also press all the shiny buttons.
Gwen, for her part, was focused on the informational signs posted to the leftmost wall. Data about coral lifelines, oceanographic pollutants, and sea critters that made the area their home was printed all along the walk towards the first tank room. As Gwen read, she silently considered whether it was presented too simplistically, without much of the context that could provide a narrative of the reef – merely a popcorn of factoids and potential Trivial Pursuit answers.
“Still, it’s for kids, I suppose,” she admitted aloud.
“Look up!” Eleanor said, wrenching Dania’s gaze from the buttons and towards the ceiling. In an arch around the next doorway, a garland of fake coral was festooned around the walls, a perfect match to the real plants behind glass.
“It’s like we’re walking directly into the reef,” Dania said. “A reef filled with strollers, but y’know.”
“They do a great job of transitioning with architecture,” Gwen added. “Two rooms ago, we were ‘outside’ at the surf, but now we’re underwater and I can’t place exactly where the change occurred.”
“Probably around the portal of coral that we just – woah, look up!”
Eleanor stopped, taking note of the crowd of fish that circled just above them. The room featured two major tanks, a smaller on to the left and the larger full wall on the right, while two ceiling portholes held a flock of what looked like sardines.
“There’s not a single empty wall here!” Gwen marveled. Sure enough, the whole room was coated with coral, the archway expanding to consume the room.
“Focus on the real coral, Gwen,” Eleanor chided. She and Dania walked up to the edge of the larger wall, where a swarm of colorful fish was bringing peals of laughter from the other patrons.
“It looks like a blacklight.”
“Like they put in a blacklight,” Eleanor repeated. “The colors are so hypersaturated. I wonder if that’s intentional.”
“Isn’t the point to just build a normal coral reef?” Dania asked. “For accuracy or conservation or whatever?”
“Yeah, but showmanship is clearly at play,” Eleanor said. She looked at Gwen, who seemed to be observing everything in the aquarium that didn’t live in the water.
“Oof, not a good wall,” Gwen said, indicating the blue doorway where the bathrooms were, up ahead. “Breaks the immersion.”
“Gwen, the fish.”
The three continued. The next hallway – for it wasn’t truly a room – continued the coral pattern, but mostly featured smaller tanks.
“It’s brighter,” Dania said. “More normal lights, instead of feeling like a fish.”
“Yeah,” Eleanor muttered. She noticed that kids tended to walk past this section, searching for sharks.
Dania scrolled through the different animals displayed on the touchscreens in front of each case, before swiping a finger across one of the tanks.
“Whoops,” she dodged. “Force of habit.”
“Everything looks like a screen here,” Eleanor said. “The jellies on the ground floor, the illuminated signs down here, the tanks themselves. Give it five years and everything will be interactive.”
“That’s what the museums are focusing on,” Gwen said. “Interactivity. That’s what gets those gosh-darn millennial to learn.”
As Eleanor and Gwen laughed, Dania watched a single pink fish – I’m naming him Reginald, she thought – swim confidently up to an opening in the coral, looking out at the other tanks. Through the water, Dania could see some of the fish from the earlier room.
“Are all the tanks connected?” she asked.
“There’s dividers,” Eleanor said, pointing through the glass. “But I think the idea is to make it all feel like one big sea that you’re looking at from different angles.”
“Guys,” Gwen said, motioning the others over.
The next room was the goldmine: sharks.
Three massive planes of glass, curved concave towards the guests, allowed a view onto a seemingly limitless expanse of dark water. Swimming through the murky blue were all assortments of fish, with a handful of massive sharks that patrolled the area.
Dania was back to feeling submerged. Aside from one interactive plastic shark, the room was as empty as the tank itself. No coral meant bare walls to match, but she hardly noticed, with the room’s curves concretely drawing her focus to the sharks.
“Also this, over here.” Gwen led Eleanor and Dania to the back of the room, where a glass barrier and open water evoked the very first room in the exhibit. While the sharks swam above their heads, this water was below them – literally, as they stood on a glass floor above the stingrays.
“Smell that?” Eleanor observed. “The sea.”
“Interesting sensory addition,” Gwen said. “Considering you can still smell the water across the room, even when looking at the sharks.”
“I just love being able to stand right above the stingrays.” Dania smiled, childishly, as she seemed to hover above a ray just inches from her soles.
The next hallway matched the one leading into the shark room, with a little décor for character – some new plastic polyps, a ship’s rigging and buoy hanging above their heads. In the miniature cases, a mandarin dragonet darted about in one, while seahorses floated leisurely in another.
This time, the girls followed the traffic pattern of children, walking past this area – and a sculpture of a clownfish made from recycled trash – into the Mangrove Den.
“Well, it doesn’t really feel like I’m in the forest anymore,” Dania complained. “This looks more like a museum than anything else.”
“There’s a little bit of immersion,” Eleanor said, pointing to the vines of trees that reached out over the ceiling. “But yeah, it’s a little more removed.”
“Again, the transition hallways do their job well,” Gwen added. “If each room is supposed to feel like you’re actually there, it’s hard to do that with so many different biomes without giving the audience whiplash.”
“Maybe that’s the idea here,” Eleanor suggested. “The Mangrove is outdoors, and above water. And I definitely feel like I’m above water, so maybe a more clinical design makes sense.”
“Still,” Dania argued, “you could spring for a few leaves on the walls. Look at the fake mural behind that tree. The first room had a real skylight.”
The less immersive area funneled the trio through quickly, and soon they found themselves in a room that replicated a small fishing town – or, at least one hut of a small fishing town, in the Philippines.
“See, there’s immersion here again,” Eleanor said. “Check out the Community Board.”
She walked over to the bulletin board, where notices about the town were hanging. After reading over some of them, Eleanor walked back to the others.
“Never mind, it’s just more conservation facts.”
The area, for all its décor, stuck out for not having a single aquatic animal on display. Then again, considering the information in the room concerned conservation of the reefs, perhaps this absence was more pointed than the room let on.
“Is that a brain?”
Dania ran ahead, into an extremely simple room: just one glass case, on the left side, containing a handful of individual tanks and scientific equipment. Even the exposed piping and wires in the ceiling of the room seemed to match the overall tone – one of sanitation and preservation.
“Well, this is a departure,” Eleanor remarked as she entered, joining Dania at the glass where a coral with a striking resemblance to a brain was growing in isolation.
“This is the Coral Lab,” Dania said. “I think it’s like a repair shop. Kinda cool.”
“It’s gotta grow somewhere, if not in the actual exhibit,” Eleanor said.
“Look at all the science!” Dania said, shuffling down the window. In another pressure-cooker-looking tank, a froth of bubbles wriggled as the heat fluxuated. Both Dania and Eleanor were enraptured with the contraption when Gwen approached them.
“I think that’s it for the Wild Reef,” she said. “The artificial surf is around the corner, and then the exhibit loops. Shall we head out?”
“Sure.” The three exited the room, passing by the loud splash of the surf on their way back to the elevators.
“What a cool exhibit,” Eleanor said. “Super weird and immersive.”
“But not, like, in your face about it,” Dania said. “You could totally just walk through and look at the fish if you want.”
“It’s a more pervasive immersion,” Gwen said. “An emotional response.”
“It could certainly make a lot of kids interested in oceanography and reef preservation,” Eleanor said. “And that’s always worth something.”
Dania smiled, before stepping into the elevator again, she glanced back at the crashing waves. How did they build a machine to recreate that? she wondered. Could I make that work?
Image Credit: Block Electric