Smithsonian’s New Holographic Experience Dives Into Marine Conservation

“Critical Distance” explores why southern resident orca whales are endangered and how marine conservation can help.

Two people an augmented-reality experience wear headsets while reaching out to "touch" a holographic killer whale.
Visitors at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History can interact with an endangered holographic orca pod in the new augmented-reality experience, “Critical Distance.” The experience is designed to connect humans to the ocean. Andrew Harrington and Joshua Downs, Formative Co.

In the waters off the coast of Washington and southwest Canada lives a population of killer whales known for their picky eating. They almost exclusively feast on the largest salmon in the world.

But the whales, called southern resident orcas, are also famous for another reason. There are only around 75 of them left.

Now, visitors to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History can witness a holographic southern resident orca pod up close. “Critical Distance,” a new experience created by Vision3 in partnership with Microsoft, explores why these whales are endangered and how marine conservation can help.

“The biggest threat to southern resident orcas is that there is less Chinook salmon for them to eat than there used to be due to overfishing and habitat degradation where the fish lay their eggs,” said John Ososky, the museum’s collections manager for marine mammals.

A scarce food supply hasn’t been the only thing threatening southern resident orcas. Toxins and plastic pollutants in the ocean are typically ingested by small animals like fish. When orcas eat the fish, they then absorb the toxins and plastics themselves. Those small amounts of contaminants build up over time in the orcas’ bodies and can lead to health complications. t seemed too good to be true.

A person in an augmented-reality experience wears a headset and reaches out to "touch" a holographic orca whale while other orcas "swim" in the background.
The endangered orca population shown in this holographic experience live off the coast of Washington and southwestern Canada in the Pacific Ocean’s Salish Sea. There are only around 75 of them remaining. Andrew Harrington and Joshua Downs, Formative Co.

"Toxins and plastics can compound in the whales’ bodies, causing harm to their organs. The effects can have an especially large impact in the orcas’ early life stages depending on the amount of pollution,” said Ososky.

Ship traffic in the Salish Sea, the water region in the Pacific Ocean where the whales live, can also complicate things. Orcas hunt by using echolocation, emitting high-pitched sound waves that bounce off nearby objects to create a picture of their surroundings. Noise from ships can mask sound waves, while crowding from boats can divert the whales from their hunting grounds.

The augmented reality experience creatively interprets how humans impact these whales. It explores the value of marine conservation and the importance of monitoring complex issues affecting orca and ocean health.

“Marine conservation is important because we all share the planet," said Ososky. “The health of southern resident orcas is an indicator of whether or not we can live together with marine life.”

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