Image: A North Atlantic right whale model
Lauren Victoria Burke  /  AP
A North Atlantic right whale model entitled "Phoenix"  in the new Sant Ocean Hall in the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington.
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updated 9/25/2008 12:27:33 PM ET 2008-09-25T16:27:33

Covering more than 70 percent of the planet's surface, the ocean is both a life-giving resource and a highway. Yet it's also a life-threatening obstacle, hiding untold mysteries.

More people have stood on the moon than have visited the ocean's deepest recesses.

Now the scholarly, or those just curious, can plumb the depths of the seas with the opening Saturday of the new Sant Ocean Hall at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History.

The $49 million project — the biggest renovation since the museum opened in 1910 — combines the tradition of a Tlingit canoe, the massiveness of a full-size whale model, the detail of hundreds of marine specimens and modern technology to tell the tale of the sea.

"For thousands of years people looked across the ocean and asked, 'What lies beyond?' Today we ask, 'What lies below?' and ocean explorers with new technologies are finding answers to those deep mysteries," Conrad C. Lautenbacher, head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said.

Added museum director Cristian Samper: "The ocean is a global system essential to all life, including yours."

Image: An exhibit featuring the giant Great White Shark
Lauren Victoria Burke  /  AP
An exhibit featuring the giant Great White Shark in the new Sant Ocean Hall in the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington.
The hall also is the only place in the world to exhibit the preserved remains of both an adult coelacanth (SEE-la-kanth) and its pup. This large prehistoric fish was thought to have gone extinct 65 million years ago, until a fisherman caught one off the coast of South Africa in 1938. Other preserved remains include male and female giant squids.

But plenty of life is also on show, with a 1,500 gallon aquarium containing an Indo-Pacific coral reef featuring more than 1,000 specimens of 50 species of live fish and other marine life.

Overhead looms Phoenix, a 45-foot model of a live right whale which was born in 1987 and has been tracked by scientists ever since.

"Phoenix is the ambassador of the hall," said Samper, who added that development of the hall took five years and involved more than 1,000 people.

Among other sections in the 23,000-square-foot exhibition are:

  • "Ocean Odyssey," a film by underwater cinematographer Feodor Pitcairn, which wraps the walls above the exhibit space.
  • Image: Science on a Sphere globe
    Lauren Victoria Burke  /  AP
    The Science on a Sphere globe created by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
    "Journey through Time," looking at the past with fossils of ancient organisms, some more than 500 million years old.
  • "Deep Ocean Explorers," a video that follows a dive through the zones of the open ocean to the deep bottom aboard the submersible, Alvin.
  • Living on an Ocean Planet" traces the connection between the ocean and daily life.
  • "Human Connection," a series of 30 stories told throughout the hall, highlighting the relationship between humans and the ocean.
  • "Science on a Sphere," a room-sized, 360-degree global display system, developed by NOAA, displaying information on what the ocean produces, how it changes and how it interacts with the atmosphere to moderate our climate.
  • "The Ocean as a Laboratory," developed with the History Channel, a series of audiovisual stories and supplemental photo essays that introduces the work of marine scientists around the world.

The hall is named for Victoria and Roger Sant, Washington philanthropists and Smithsonian supporters, who donated $15 million to endow the new hall and related programs. Other contributors included NOAA, the 3M Company, Ocean Conservancy, Guenther and Siewchin Yong Sommer, Sony Electronics Inc. and the Japan Agency for Marine Earth Science and Technology.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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