In the darkness, an electric blue shark grows from a tiny speck of light, its eyes focused on a tiny fish. In an instant, dinner vanishes inside its mouth.
Welcome to ImaginOcean.
The National Aquarium's new laser-animated exhibit opened yesterday after a year of work by designers, animators and laser technology experts. It temporarily replaces the Atlantic Coral Reef and Open Ocean exhibits, which are undergoing $12.7 million in renovations over the next 12 to 14 months.
"It's great," said Donna Reynolds of North Canton, Ohio, viewing ImaginOcean with her husband, Don. The Reynolds are vacationing in Baltimore until tomorrow, and have a passion for zoos and aquariums.
"I think it demonstrates the terrific imagination of the creators to figure all that out," she said.
"We try to stay on the cutting edge of the latest technology," aquarium spokeswoman Vicki Aversa said. "As far as the use of lasers for entertainment purposes, this is one of the most sophisticated shows in the U.S."
After leaving the Rain Forest exhibit, visitors descend a series of ramps where scores of underwater scenes are played out around them. Near the surface, neon pelicans and spoonbills swoop overhead. Storm clouds gather and gradually dissipate, and sea anemones flagellate furiously. Just below, fluorescent fish, porpoises, dolphins, green moray eels and jellyfish appear and disappear.
Images start out as a tiny dots and grow larger, swirling or swimming on the curved walls of the ring tanks.
Although it looks simplistic, Ms. Aversa says the exhibit was complicated to create. It runs on 26 high-speed remote laser heads controlled by 14 separate computer systems.
"The animations can't be 100 percent realistic, but they are very close. The animators spent hours talking with aquarium staff and studying the movements of the different species."
Wandering about refining the system and watching visitors' reactions yesterday was the founder and president of the firm that helped execute the exhibit.
Floyd Rollefstad of Laser Fantasy International said he hadn't slept for the past 24 hours. He noted that the octopus seemed particularly popular and said, "We're looking to see what people like and hope to add a few other species by summer."
The laser show will be dismantled when the ring tank renovations are complete, which staff members expect to be by the spring of 1995. "We'd like to see it used again -- if not at our aquarium, then somewhere else," Ms. Aversa said.
Visitors numbered about 7,000 by 4 p.m. yesterday, a typical turnout for the day after Thanksgiving, Ms. Aversa said. Daily weekend attendance averages between 2,000 and 4,000 visitors, she said.
"I liked how the shapes move in and out and come toward you," said Tanya Roberts of Wheaton, who was visiting with her stepson and his family.
Ken Shafer of Columbia was less enthusiastic. He still longs for the real thing -- living fish and sharks.
"[They] were one of the highlights of the aquarium." he said. "But this was nice, too."