Water covers more than 70 percent of the Earth's surface, yet what's underneath the sea is largely unknown and unexplored. With the opening of Sant Ocean Hall at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., visitors are encouraged to learn more about the past, present and future of this vast ecosystem that is so essential to life on the planet.  VOA's Rosanne Skirble reports.

While millions of people worldwide live on or near a coast, for most of us, our connection with the ocean stops at the beach. Visitors to the Sant Ocean Hall are immediately immersed into another world, with hues of green and blue reflected from the glass display cases rippling like waves through the exhibit space. 

Overhead and hanging from the ceiling is Phoenix, an exact replica of a 14-meter-long North American right whale tracked by scientists since her birth off the coast of Georgia in 1987. She's had three calves and was spotted a few weeks ago off the coast of Maine. 

Museum Director Cristian Samper says Phoenix is an icon to which people can relate.

"Her name comes from being the 'right' whale to hunt," he says.  "And the fact is that there [are] less than 400 of these whales in the Northeast. So it is a species that is at the brink of extinction, where [human] activities will determine the fate of the species for the future."

Phoenix appears as if she were swimming in the ocean, because projected on huge panels on the walls over the exhibit hall are videos alive with action: sharks, whales, jellyfish, manta rays and schools of colorful, darting fish. 

Diving into the past can be pretty scary, too. Witness the 25-million-year-old jawbone with pointy teeth of a great white shark or the nasty looking deep-dwelling giant squid captured by Spanish fishermen in 2005.

"She is the largest, most intact squid specimen anywhere on display, and one of the big challenges is how to display these specimens, because we couldn't have them in thousands of gallons of alcohol with thousands of people around them," says Samper.

Instead, the 7-meter-long female and the smaller male squid are suspended in time in a nontoxic, nonflammable, clear liquid developed especially for Sant Ocean Hall. They make a big impression, Samper observes, as do the other specimens from the museum's marine collection - the largest in the world. 

"There are close 700 different specimens [from a collection of 80] on display - everything from a variety of fish, to jellyfish, to sea stars," Samper says. "So you can come here and get a pretty good feeling for what's life in the ocean."  

Visitors are invited to touch fossils, open drawers that hold mounted seabirds or gaze eye-to-eye at a tiny shark in a glass jar. That's why Sally Babylon from Galesville, Maryland, brought her 7-year-old grandson, Elim, who she says already shows a keen interest in the ocean world.

"I just want to pass on to him both my appreciation of the beauty of it and also the care that it takes, that we all have to not pollute and be aware of species that are threatened," Babylon says.

And there is a lot more to see. A crowd gathers around the 6,000-liter Indo-Pacific reef aquarium that contains dozens of species.  Other eyes are riveted on a 2-meter-wide iridescent blue and green rotating globe that represents what the Earth looks like from space. Projected videos and graphics show how the ocean interacts with the land, the atmosphere, the sea floor and humans.

Cristian Samper hopes Science-on-a-Sphere and other exhibits help raise awareness about global issues like habitat change, fishery loss, invasive species, pollution and global warming that affect the health of the planet.

"So if you come here, and you walk away saying, 'Wow, this is an incredible place,' then we have done our job and we can help everyone understand that we do live in an ocean planet," he says.

Samper says that connection can begin with a visit to the Sant Ocean Hall at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington. But no matter where you live, you can dive into the undersea world on the Web at www.ocean.si.edu to learn more.