A Whale Called Phoenix

A very large mammal will help tell an even weightier tale—about the ocean in this crowded, challenging century

Phoenix, a life-size model of a North Atlantic right whale, at the center of the new Sant Ocean Hall, 2008 Photo by Chip Clark, Smithsonian Institution

A female whale named Phoenix, nearly 50 feet long, will be the focal point of a new state-of-the-art Ocean Hall at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History (NMNH). When it opens in September 2008, the 23,000-square-foot hall will be the museum's largest exhibition space. That prominence is well justified, especially now at the beginning of this crucial century. We often hear that the ocean covers 71 percent of the earth's surface and that it constitutes 97 percent of the living space available on the planet. Less often remarked upon, but more significant, is the important role that the ocean plays in our lives. That truth, while abstract and difficult to quantify, will be the main message of the Ocean Hall, which will present the ocean as a global system that is vast, diverse, ancient, constantly changing and largely unexplored.

In addition to being an astonishing sight, Phoenix provides the perfect metaphor for many of the hall's themes. She illustrates the fragile but enduring relationship between people and the ocean. And she highlights the ways all organisms in the ocean interact in that she hosts a bustling community of creatures, some of which live on her skin, hitchhiking through the water.

Phoenix was first spotted off the coast of Georgia in 1987 when she was a newborn calf. Since then, scientists have been tracking and studying her migrations, learning for instance that several times she has traveled from the Georgia/Florida coast to the Bay of Fundy in Canada. Phoenix, who has had two calves of her own, in 1996 and 2003, was named for her extraordinary ability to recover from a life-threatening accident—getting severely entangled in and injured by a fishing net in August 1997. Parts of the net remained attached to her for almost two years, and while today she swims free of all remnants, permanent scars on her lip and tail attest to the ordeal.

At NMNH, Phoenix will be represented by a model, but not just an ordinary museum model depicting a generic adult North Atlantic right whale (one of the largest and most endangered animals on the planet). Instead, this model is a full-scale, scientifically accurate depiction of a living individual. For example, it duplicates the telltale callosities that appear along Phoenix’s head. These thickened, crusty patches of skin are as unique for whales as fingerprints are for us, and the distinctive patterns they form help scientists tell one whale from another. Even Phoenix's scars are visible on the model, which will be suspended from the Ocean Hall's ceiling, allowing visitors to walk underneath it, as well as to view it eye to eye, from a second-level balcony.

The Ocean Hall exhibit development team and the NMNH administration are dedicated to keeping the hall up-to-date with current and ongoing scientific research. By relying on scientists from the Smithsonian, and from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the New England Aquarium, NASA and other outside organizations, exhibition displays and interactive activities will feature everything from current weather patterns to real-time feeds from research vessels.

This ambitious project would not have been possible without bipartisan Congressional backing, fundraising from private sources and, most important, scientific, educational and financial collaboration with NOAA. In the coming decades, ocean research, education and conservation will become only more urgent. As a result, the environmental well-being of the ocean must engage the public, scientists and policymakers alike—on local, national and international levels. The NMNH is proud to play a leadership role in giving ocean research and ocean awareness the priority they deserve. Phoenix and all of her fellow beings on earth depend on it.

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