'Living Seashore' exhibit opens at National Aquarium

Can a moon jellyfish bring tourists back to Baltimore?

The bell of a moon jellyfish located in the National Aquarium's new "Living Seashore" exhibit is cool and slippery to the touch. The pale globe pulses up briefly and all but imperceptibly against a visitor's outstretched palm before gliding past, almost like the beating of a heart.

"I was kind of scared of getting stung, so I had to try five times before I could touch the jellyfish," said 10-year-old Marlon Jackson, who was moving around two "touch pools" Friday with his class from James K. Polk Elementary School in Alexandria, Va.

"But I finally did, and it felt pretty good. I want to touch it again."

The $5.5 million "Living Seashore" officially opens to the public Tuesday — the first major tourist attraction to be unveiled in Baltimore since the riots and looting that erupted following the April 19 death of Freddie Gray. Prosecutors say that the 25-year-old man suffered a fatal spinal injury while in police custody.

City officials hope that the rare chance to handle marine life in the aquarium's version of a petting zoo will lure visitors downtown just a few weeks after images of a military vehicle rumbling down Calvert Street, an art museum boarded up against potential looters and gun-toting National Guardsmen dominated computer and television screens nationwide.

"My concern right now is the tourist travel," said Tom Noonan, president of Visit Baltimore, adding that the city's meeting and hotel business has rebounded from the losses it suffered for seven to 10 days after the unrest.

Between the "Living Seashore" exhibit and the Preakness, he said, "it will feel almost like a normal tourist weekend."

"Every time you have a new exhibit like this opening in the Inner Harbor, it draws a crowd. It may help to restore a sense of normalcy that's been lacking for the past few weeks."

For example, in the six months after the "Blacktip Reef" exhibit last August, the aquarium had 381,530 visitors, compared with 372,740 visitors in the same period a year before. That's an increase of 8,790 guests, or about 2.35 percent.

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings knows that a few new fish aren't going to fix all that ails Baltimore. But, he's glad for any signs that the city might be mending.

"Through important opportunities like this, we are able to demonstrate that Baltimore is a welcoming city with lots to offer," the Baltimore Democrat wrote in an email. "As landmark attractions across the city continue to innovate, we are sending a message to the world that our economy is strong and Baltimore is back to business."

Downtown was back in business Monday evening. In the first game at Camden Yards since April 29 — and the first before fans since April 26 — a crowd of 20,268 watched the Orioles take an early lead on the Toronto Blue Jays, while wearing new home "Baltimore" jerseys, the club's subtle nod to the unrest that closed a home game to the public and moved a home series against the Tampa Bay Rays to Florida.

Downtown was back in business Monday evening. In the first game at Camden Yards since April 29 — and the first before fans since April 26 — a crowd of 20,268 watched the Orioles take an early lead on the Toronto Blue Jays, while wearing new home "Baltimore" jerseys, the club's subtle nod to the unrest that closed a home game to the public and moved a home series against the Tampa Bay Rays to Florida.

Sue and Wayne Hitt of Buffalo, N.Y., said the protests didn't deter them from granting their granddaughter Leah's wish to spend her 6th birthday at the aquarium on Friday, where she stroked a horseshoe crab and marveled at the starfish. The family, which included Leah's mother and baby sister, toured the exhibit during its "soft opening." A limited number of visitors have been allowed inside daily to gradually get the 150 animals used to being observed or touched.

"When the trouble first started, I was probably a little bit nervous about visiting," Sue Hitt said. "But every city has its own share of bad things going on."

The exhibit, which covers 2,700 square feet, is part of a $10.5 million project to upgrade the 33-year-old building.

"For more than 30 years, our aquarium has been an anchor for Downtown and the Inner Harbor," Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said in a statement. "But our aquarium is much more than an economic driver — it's a place for all of us to gain insight into the depths of our planet's oceans and the diverse forms of life that inhabit our waterways."

Aquarium spokeswoman Kate Rowe said that not just the timing, but the content of the 2,700-square foot exhibit reinforces the message that Baltimore is a special place by celebrating the species living between the tides of the Mid-Atlantic seashore — in a sense, in our own backyard.

The exhibit has been in the planning stages for two years. Rowe said that some people reacted with disappointment when they learned that the installation would focus on the animals along the Mid-Atlantic seacoast instead of on a more exotic locale.

But she thinks visitors will be surprised by how the exhibit opens up the hidden depths of a seemingly familiar terrain.

"This is a nice exhibit to visit before you go to the beach on your summer vacation," Rowe said.

"After you leave, you will look at the beach in a different way than you did before. The beach is very dynamic. It's changing all the time, and every object on the beach has a story to tell."

Baltimore's aquarium isn't the only facility in the United States to have touch pools. They've even been in Baltimore before, at an exhibit that ran in 1998.

"But it hasn't been done to this extent before," said Jack Cover, the aquarium's general curator. "Living Seashore is be the most interactive exhibit we've ever introduced."

Though the touch pools likely will be "Living Seashore's" main attractions, there are plenty of other things to see, including an installation that explores mysterious objects that wash up at high tide, boardwalk-style binoculars that show visitors videos of animals on the beach, and a revolving panel that uncovers the life teeming inside a bucket of sand.

Also new are three large murals created by Jane Kim, a California-based artist. The murals are not painted, but are made from tiny layers of paper that the artist glued atop one another to give a three-dimensional feel.

"Because the aquarium was having a touch exhibit, I didn't want to have a mural made out of flat paint," Kim said. "I knew I wanted to have something tactile and textural that would go along with what they were trying to do."

Kim said that she worked closely with Cover to ensure that the murals were scientifically accurate.

"For instance, the way that waves crash onto the sand is a little bit different in Maryland and Virginia than it is on the West Coast where I live," she said.

"On my first sketch, I had the waves breaking a little early, like they do in the Pacific. Jack made sure I had them crashing directly onto the shore."

mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

Baltimore Sun reporter Peter Schmuck contributed to this article.

If you go

"Living Seashore" opens Tuesday at the National Aquarium, 501 E. Pratt St. Tickets cost $34.95 general admission; $31.95 for seniors and $21.95 for children aged 3-11. Call 410-576-3800 or visit aqua.org.

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