The Aquarium of the Pacific's newest exhibit introduces visitors to an eerie world beyond the reach of sunshine: the bottom of the ocean, a strange seascape of crushing pressure, volcanic fissures and an abundance of cryptic creatures.
The Wonders of the Deep gallery, which is scheduled to open to the public May 24, will be one of the few places where visitors can marvel over bioluminescent fish and opportunistic scavengers that inhabit the biological oases created by dead marine mammals that sink to the bottom.
The $560,000 exhibit is also designed to increase awareness about the importance of protecting marine resources and to convey a message: "The deep ocean is a tough place to make a living and get a square meal," Jerry Schubel, the Long Beach aquarium's president and chief executive, said Saturday. Workers were busy installing temperature and filtration control systems, cleaning display windows and lowering a fiberglass replica of a rotting pygmy sperm whale carcass into a large tank that will showcase marine scavengers.
"Our goal is to make connections between these deep, dark places and people's daily lives," Schubel said. "The ocean supports life-support systems for all life on Earth, including humans."
Glancing back at the artificial dead whale in the tank, he smiled and added, "I know, it's gross. But kids love gross."
Because most creatures that exist in the darkest depths of the ocean cannot survive coming to the surface, the aquarium is presenting shallower-water counterparts.
Among them are flashlight fish, a small black species armed with clumps of bioluminescent bacteria that reside just under their eyes. By using a flap of skin to hide and reveal these lights — seemingly turning them off and on — the flashlight fish is able to avoid predators, feed on specks of plankton and navigate through the darkness 1,200 feet beneath the surface.
Other characters of the deep here include spiral-shaped chambered nautiluses, which travel vertically thousands of feet each day to feed in murky shallows and then hide in places where sunlight is swallowed by the sea. Giant isopods resemble three-pound versions of garden-variety pill bugs. Squat lobsters, which are related to hermit crabs, have claws six times their body length. The spiny species known as the fragile urchin feeds on fragments of dead fish and algae.
Then there are the slender inshore hagfish, snake-like scavengers that grow up to 2 feet in length and, when spooked, emit thick globs of slime intended to force hungry predators to cough them up and spit them out.
"Essentially, this animal's defense strategy is to make itself so disgusting no one will want to eat it," aquarist Marslaidh Tryk said as she reached into a bucket of water and lifted up a writhing 2-foot specimen.
On cue, the hagfish responded by filling her hands with long strings of slime, seemingly as strong and elastic as rubber bands. "Slime aside," Tryk said, "this hagfish is in great shape."
The living exhibits will be accompanied by live video feeds from ongoing explorations of deep waters around the world conducted by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's ship Okeanos Explorer and oceanographer Bob Ballard's ship Nautilus.
"About 98% of the world's oceans are in complete darkness — and the only light is created by glittering creatures such as the flashlight fish," Schubel said. "So we'll keep this whole gallery as dark as possible."