French aquarium offers education and theatrics A Tale of Two Cities


Boulogne-sur-Mer, France -- In Homer's "Odyssey," Nausicaa is the name of a beautiful princess from a coastal kingdom who comforts Odysseus after he is shipwrecked and then sends him home on a magical ship.

In this picturesque coastal town south of Calais, the French terminus to the Channel Tunnel, a modern vessel named after the princess takes voyagers on a simulated journey through the seas of the world -- and the worlds of the sea. Along the way, it introduces them to tales of human adventure on water, from life on a giant trawler to explorations deep beneath the ocean's surface.

Nausicaa is a 4-year-old institution that is widely regarded to be the best aquarium in France -- if not all of Europe. It's also part maritime museum, part natural-history center and part fisheries exhibition.

Nicholas Brown, former director of the National Aquarium in Baltimore, said he found it as impressive as any of the new aquariums in the United States or Japan.

"It represents an entirely different approach to aquarium design," he said. "There's nothing else like it."

Mr. Brown may admire Nausicaa because it has much of the theatricality and visual beauty that has made Baltimore's facility so popular. It also contains certain exhibits that few American aquariums have been able to mount successfully, including a large terrarium with living coral and an impressive array of jellyfish.

Known as France's "National Center of the Sea," Nausicaa bills itself as Europe's largest "sea-experience museum" and the only marine discovery complex in Europe designed for the general public, the fishing industry, maritime professionals, researchers and scientists.

In some ways, Nausicaa is even more dazzling than the National Aquarium in Baltimore, combining the theatrical lighting and sound effects of the Lido nightclub in Paris with educational techniques of the finest French museums. Leighton Taylor, a noted wildlife consultant and expert on aquariums of the world, calls it "educational theatrics."

The $4 million facility opened in May 1991 after eight years of planning, with 40 percent of its construction funds coming from the European Fund for Economic and Regional Development. It occupies the site and part of the original building of an old casino and public swimming complex.

Since its opening, Nausicaa has become one of northern France's biggest attractions, drawing 800,000 visitors a year. Twenty percent of its visitors are British, a figure that is expected to rise this year.

"With the opening of the Channel Tunnel, we are anticipating an . . . increase in 1995 with groups and families dropping in at Nausicaa either at the beginning or end of their visits to France," said information officer Francoise Amet.

Nausicaa's mission is to sensitize visitors to the sea and the many ways people interact with it. In addition to exhibits on sharks, stingrays, tuna and other creatures, it focuses on man's role in managing the oceans' resources.

A large part of Nausicaa's appeal is that it arouses the senses at every turn, using lights, mirrors, video and other multimedia techniques to present scientific facts in a playful and imaginative way.

Visitors can climb aboard a full-scale replica of a trawler and explore a working aquaculture laboratory. They can put their heads through underwater "viewing domes" and stand nose to claw with crabs and lobsters. Even the passageways from one exhibit to another are used to help teach people about sea life.

Designed by French architect Jacques Rougerie and exhibit specialist Christian Le Conte, this multi-sensory aquarium has been divided into two parts: "The Worlds of the Sea" and "Man and the Sea."

As with Baltimore's aquarium, visitors follow a one-way path that introduces them to the oceans of the world. Because the aquarium is in France, Nausicaa emphasizes bodies of water in that part of the world, including the Mediterranean, the North Sea, the English Channel and the North Atlantic coast.

In keeping with its effort to attract British visitors as well as natives of France, Nausicaa is fully bilingual, with all exhibits labeled in English and French.

At the beginning of their underwater journey, visitors are plunged into darkness and greeted with dreamlike music that incorporates the sounds of whales calling.

The first exhibit takes a look at the first element in the marine food chain, plankton. Video screens explain some of the ways fish live and avoid danger, while adjacent exhibits illustrate the techniques they use to fend off predators. From there visitors encounter simulated environments ranging from the ocean's surface to its depths, including a tropical lagoon and the cold seas.

In an exhibit on the Mediterranean, the effects of pollution are graphically shown in illuminated tanks. A rusting wreck comes next, providing a home for conger eels. Above the surface again, a view of life on a typical seashore includes a wave tank featuring starfish, shellfish and shrimp.

One of the most striking exhibits is at the beginning of the "Man and the Sea" area, where an upside-down glass pyramid full of tuna glows in the dark like a faceted gem. Mirrors and lights help give spectators the illusion of being caught with them in a net.

The dangers of the sea are graphically shown in the lifelike reconstruction of a trawler. Standing on the deck of the ship, visitors hear the sounds of the raging sea, the howling winds and the constant clanging of machinery.

Nausicaa is one of the few aquariums that devotes exhibit space to the art of catching and killing fish -- to make a point. One display focuses on the many different kinds of nets, baits, hooks, lures and weapons used throughout history, some of which are quite beautiful. But the very next exhibit shows how countries are now using advances in aquaculture to "farm" the sea, rather than deplete its resources.

Near the end of the journey is a large touch pool that gives visitors a chance to dip their hands in the water and feel skate, which swim along the surface. Interactive exhibits point out the need for better management of the oceans' resources, and show the steps already taken by the European countries to address conservation issues jointly and form a "Common Market of the Waters" known as "Blue Europe."

The final exhibit is the building's largest, a 600,000-gallon exhibit where sharks swim over and around spectators in a giant glass bubble.

The only research center of its kind in Europe, Nausicaa is equipped with a highly efficient hydrodynamic test tank that was designed by the French Institute for Research into the Sea and its Exploitation.

Visitors can also visit Nausicaa's marine library, one of the largest in France, and watch a half-hour film about sea creatures not on the premises. Throughout the building, the level of discourse is very sophisticated, with references to figures such as Diogenes, a Greek philosopher from the fifth century B.C., and Hugo Grotius, a 17th-century Dutch legal scholar who first wrote about the notion of countries having fishing rights.

But what lingers in the mind about this aquarium-of-the-senses is the poetry of it all and the many different media used to convey information in an entertaining way. Every object tells a story, and the accompanying text is beautifully written to bring home simple truths.

"The sea is a series of beginnings," one panel reads.

Much of the information is presented in a whimsical, almost flippant way. But the underlying message is quite serious: that people of all nations must increase their knowledge of the sea to preserve their heritage and ensure that limited resources are well managed.

In an age when engineering marvels such as the Chunnel are bringing nations closer, that message is more timely than ever.

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