The National Museum of Natural History in Washington DC has launched a new holographic experience for visitors that it hopes will shed light on the waters off the American coast. According to the museum, which is part of the Smithsonian Institute, the idea is to better educate the public about marine life in the oceans. The museum’s large holographic displays feature one of the most threatened marine mammals around, an American sub-species of the killer whale, or orca.
The so-called southern resident orcas tend to live in the waters off the coast of southwestern Canada and Washington state on the other side of the international border. They are renowned as fussy eaters which partially accounts for why this particular population of killer whales has been diminishing in the last few decades. According to the Smithsonian, these hunters feed almost exclusively on a diet that is made up of the largest salmon in the sea. Marine biologists now think that there are only around 75 of these incredibly rare mammals left in the wild. What the National Museum of Natural History has done is use new technologies to highlight the plight of these animals and allow people to experience what it would be like to get up close and personal with them in a virtual sense.
Visitors to the Smithsonian museum on the capital’s National Mall will be able to see a holographic representation of a group of southern resident orcas as though they were swimming among them. By allowing people to see how members of a pod interact with one another, it is hoped that the social side of the animal will come to the fore. The holographic show is called ‘Critical Distance’, a nod to the critical numbers of the orca sub-species and to how close people can now get to these amazing creatures. The new experience was created for the National Museum of Natural History by Vision3, a virtual reality and three-dimensional production company headquartered in North London, along with the tech giant Microsoft. Both Vision3 and Microsoft partnered with the museum to come up with an innovative way to explore why the orcas are endangered. Another big part of the design brief for the project was to demonstrate how marine conservation might be able to help them survive.
According to John Ososky, the collections manager for marine mammals at the museum, the biggest threat that exists with respect to southern resident orcas today is the availability of food. “There is quite simply less for them to eat in their waters than there used to be due,” he said. Osoky reckons this is due to man’s overfishing of Chinook salmon, the orca’s favourite food, in the region. He also pointed out that large scale fishing activities lead to the degradation of the habitat where the salmon like to lay their eggs, further pressurising stock levels.
According to a statement issued by the museum, the holographic exhibition also highlights the presence of certain toxins and pollutants in the Pacific that may be causing problems. Microplastics, for example, are sometimes ingested by small animals like young salmon. When orcas eat fish that has consumed such toxins, they can concentrate those pollutants within their own bodies and end up with undigested plastics in their stomachs.
According to Ososky, plastics and other toxic material can build up in the orcas’ bodies, something that will frequently cause harm to their vital organs. “These undesirable effects often have a particularly adverse impact in the early life stages of whales,” he said. The collections manager also said that the holographic show tried to explain just how much localised shipping can cause problems for the orca, too. He said that all orcas hunt by making use of echolocation to track down their prey. However, emitting sound waves to reflect off nearby objects was not always possible when noise from ships prevented them from picking up on their own high-pitched noises. Hopefully, the visitor experience will bring these issues home to people in a way that means they are more supportive of marine conservation measures in the future.
About the author – Manuel Charr
Manuel Charr is a journalist working in the arts and cultural sectors. With a background in marketing, Manuel is drawn to arts organizations which are prepared to try inventive ways to reach new audiences.