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The Scuba Sports Club of Westchester NY Dives into… National Geographic’s Encounter: Ocean Odyssey!

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Virtual encounter of a yiger shark stalking dolphin and calf. Dolphins escaped the ambush!

By Gary Lehman

On November 18th, 2018 The Scuba Sports Club of Westchester NY launched the 2017 holiday season with a big expedition of members who sojourned into Manhattan NYC to experience the National Geographic Encounter: Ocean Odyssey exhibit. We all heard great things about the exhibit, and were so excited to attend together as friends, divers and avocational naturalists!  Virtually all of us – at one point or other during our collective years – have been captivated by articles in National Geographic, and for two+ generations have enjoyed NatGeo television documentaries. These fired our interest in the undersea world, brought us to scuba diving, and ignited our environmental awareness. Hats off to National Geographic for incorporating continual technology advances. NatGeo has succeeded brilliantly integrating the public’s visual awareness (due to the internet/social media/BBC’s Blue Planet series, etc.) with multi-sensory experiences – way beyond two-dimensional print media — into their mission!  This exhibit certainly succeeded in that! 

Nat Geo’s Encounter: Ocean Odyssey is a multi-media, interactive virtual reality/film/static display and educational underwater-themed experience — right in the heart of Times Square, New York City.  It costs more than going to the movies, but offers way more in return! Some of the proceeds are directed towards NatGeo’s work in conservation, exploration, research, and educational outreach.  So we can feel good about that.

First a little background on the event space.  Formerly this vast multi-level interior space was occupied by the New York Times newspaper printing presses.    Technology changed, the presses obsoleted, and were replaced with the new stuff which was relocated to College Point, Queens (a NYC borough). Over the years this space was operated by Discovery Zone (and is currently run by The Schubert Organization). Descending down the escalators into the bowels of this vast space, you can sense that you are in for an experience…  Over the years this space has hosted many amazing exhibits illuminating the greatest human history and stories ever told, among them: Treasures of King Tut; Genghis Khan and Mongolia; The Vikings; The Dead Sea Scrolls; Da Vinci’s Workshop; The Pompeii Exhibit; The Rolling Stones In Action ; Treasures of RMS Titanic; Body World; Star Wars experience; Harry Potter’s World, and now… Nat Geo Encounter: Ocean Odyssey! 

At the risk of stealing the exhibit’s ‘thunder’, we’ll offer up some of the highlights of this unique experience! (So — if you plan on visiting this experience and if you want it to be a total surprise, you can skip down to the final paragraph! 😊) One of the first hints that you are in for an unusual experience is that upon arrival into the first event, you are aggressively attacked by an enormous screen-sized Humboldt squid with its vicious beak tearing apart everything in sight – including other Humboldt squids, armed with up to 35,000 razor sharp teeth. (Ummm… note to self, NEVER, EVER dive in any ocean which has among its residents Humboldt squids…)  Things ease up a bit fortunately, because then we are ‘up close and personal’ with a humpback whale mom, gently snuggling and nursing her calf. 

The exhibit highlights marine environments by geography; at one point we were <virtually> diving in the South Pacific’s Solomon Islands (east of Papua New Guinea and northeast of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef).  Sea grasses were flowing to and fro in the gentle current, water temp was around 80F, we were around 60’ down, my one mm wetsuit worked out just fine, <ok, so that is my imagination running amok>; skates and rays of various kinds were flitting about under our feet, and the soft coral seamounts were all around us. Suddenly — a huge tiger shark with its broad, blunt snout swims past us (with a whussshhh of its wake enveloping us; fortunately, it was not interested in us…) — it was stalking a baby dolphin with Mommy next to it, both grazing on the sea grasses. “LOOKOUT!” we all silently yelled out!   The mother dolphin sensed the danger, and together Mom and calf took off like a shot — leaving the tiger shark frustrated and having to make another predation another day.

Then we ventured into the waters of Hawaii at dusk to marvel at the vivid bioluminescence on 3D 360-degree display in the soft corals, fish and invertebrates.  One of the most captivating and intensively interactive displays was next, in which we were interacting with curious seals who came over to say hello to us. Borrowing motion sensing technology, these seals would sense our movements, responding reciprocally with big, questioning, and friendly eyes. No wonder that we were as fascinated with them as “they” were with us! (Those of us who have dived with seals off Gloucester Massachusetts or elsewhere recognized the seal’s virtual behavior as startlingly authentic, to the extent that in the wild, seals do come over to say hello, and hang out for a while.  Had we had been wearing fins, they would have been nipping at them! And these virtual seals did swim away to other pursuits when no one was at the viewing station). We then proceeded to the California coastline near Monterrey to try to walk (i.e. “swim”) through the dense kelp forests.  (Luckily, we did not encounter any white sharks known to frequent the edges of these forests making predations on inattentive seals.  Not that I was watching for one or anything like that…) 

The ‘Grand Finale’ was just spectacular!  (Note: if you want to be surprised, skip this paragraph…) We were provided with 3-D glasses, and went diving off South Africa during the height of the sardine run!  We were virtual participants in the resulting feeding frenzy!  This is an example of how NatGeo successfully and skillfully leverages the collective public’s preexisting knowledge at various levels… many of us have seen BBC’s Blue Planet, and thus have some familiarity with what bait balls entail and the predations that result. This preexisting image base – accelerated by our own diving knowledge and experiences – intensifies and enhances this exhibit (and actually, this is the case for each exhibit in Encounter – Ocean Odyssey).    The still frames and motion video image memories in our minds surface quickly, and we are suddenly in the middle of the bait ball — watching dolphins herding the sardines together — which form up into swirling  balls in futile collective defense. We see, hear (and feel) the bait ball with darting, stabbing frenzied penguins, gannets, dolphins, mackerel, tuna, and fur seals slice through the swirling sardine masses. And then came the sharks…  duskies, oceanic white tips, bronze whalers, blacktips, spinners and thick massive bull (Zambezi) sharks.  (Just glad that I wasn’t in the water in a black wet suit, smothered in sardine oil and blood, looking like a large, wounded, vulnerable seal…) And then… a low but rapidly building vibration through the floor announced the arrival of the humpbacks… which blew curtains of released air, further concentrating the sardines up and down in the water column. And we know what comes next: we watched and felt the humpbacks surging up through the water straight into the middle of the frenzied, panicked sardines! And then… there were none left, just floating shards of sardine parts and glittery floating sardine scales…

The exhibit concluded with both static and interactive displays with educational kiosks and panels highlighting additional undersea marvels, threats to the oceans of the world, and admonishing us all to do our part preserving our marine habitats. Quotes were provided by revered, guiding lights in the world of marine biology and exploration world such as James Cameron, Dr. Sylvia Earle, NatGeo photographer Brian Skerry, and Bob Ballard to name just a few.  (Nat Geo Encounter: Ocean Odyssey is not just for adults and divers, but it is also a terrific middle school and high school field trip.)  

Hats off to the TSSC team who pulled together this great Club trip!  This is a ‘high recommend’ for all who live in this area or who will be visiting NYC. if you want to take pictures you can, just don’t use flash – and boost your ISO way up if you can with your camera. You may have some questions about this NatGeo experience — the website does a great job. There is a Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) page with answers located at https://natgeoencounter.com/visit/  Go, Enjoy, and by all means, bring your your bcd and fins – because you are going to feel like you are right there with the sardines in the bait ball!