Tuesday, July 7, 2009

A Day Under the Blue Whale

Beneath a cerulean ceiling in the Hall of Ocean Life hangs a replica of a blue whale the size of 24 African elephants.

Born just blocks from the American Museum of Natural History, I dreamt of a career digging bones or probing galaxies. As a summer intern, I roamed the empty halls after-hours. Without people, I realized, the museum is incomplete. One Saturday in November, I sit under the blue whale and observe.

11 a.m. The museum is mobbed with kids, slicked up for the day, hair clipped and carroty. In front of a video screen is a father in trail shoes, cradling a child. The purse of a pregnant woman is wide-open, inside is a crescent moon. A woman with cucumbers sits on the floor and unfolds a map. A girl runs by with pigtails going “ooochooowww” and a youth in flannel walks aimlessly, examining his world.

“Imagine a fish that long,” says a father in a gold necklace to a daughter in baby blue. “And what they eat are tiny, tiny.” They leaf through a lunch cooler. Another daughter joins, wearing a pink beret. She takes an apple from the cooler and crunches.

“Krill dad, sardines,” says the blue daughter, “millions and millions of them.”

With an underbelly grooved and speckled, more sleek than bulky, the blue whale is like a Buddha on its side. The ceiling is arched like a great train stations’ and cobalt shapes drift across, creating the illusion you are beneath waves. From monitors, sea birds squawk, whales bellow and bubbles grumble to the surface. A large screen on the lower floor plays an endlessly looping video: turtles swim through a sunlit column of water, wave’s pound a beach, jelly fish swarm beneath a glacier. The light in the room is grainy, like the light before dozing.

At the edge of the hall, scenes of the sea: dolphins glide against a pink sky stenciled with long-winged birds, elephant seals cavort in icy waters, seals nose-kiss on blanched rocks, corals reach jaggedly for the sun. On the wall is a monstrous crab with legs the size of human limbs.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” shouts a security guard from the floor above, “if you left strollers on the balcony you need to get your stroller.”