Cal Academy’s ‘Twilight Zone’ takes viewers to unknown depth

The ocean is far easier to get to than space, yet scientists know more about the surface of the moon than the deepest water on Earth.

“Twilight Zone: Deep Reefs Revealed” is the latest groundbreaking exhibit at the California Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park. It offers a fascinating glimpse at the area that lies 200 to 500 feet below the ocean’s surface.

The zone is below the shallow reefs where divers can go with regular equipment and above the pitch-black water where scientists use expensive submersibles to investigate.

Now, thanks to advances in diving technology, scientists can reach far deeper areas and make dives that last five or six hours.

“With every dive to the twilight zone, we never know what we’ll discover,” says Bart Shepherd, senior director of Steinhart Aquarium and a member of the academy’s scientific diving team.

“I’m constantly in awe of the fact that much of what we observe and document at these depths has never before been seen by human eyes.”

Those new discoveries make for an exciting exhibit. Along with touch screens that give children easy access to information, there are plenty of colorful and fascinating creatures, such “pinecone fish” (that look like swimming pinecones) and the red and white striped “peppermint hogfish.”

Comb-like jellies are also on display – creatures that the academy scientists have nicknamed “sea peeps” because of their resemblance to the marshmallow candy.

Visitors also learn how fish in the deep reefs have especially large eyes to help navigate when sunlight is scarce.

Children can also play a game that simulates diving by trying to collect fish while managing their energy budget.

“About 50 percent of our audiences have kids,” he says. “One of the things we always try to do here at the academy is showcase the research we’re doing.”

Shepherd says academy scientists have developed a portable decompression chamber that can be taken down to the twilight zone and bring fish safely to the surface to begin life at the aquarium.

Shepherd hopes the exhibit raises awareness of the importance of protecting the ocean’s marine communities and the threat coral reefs face from pollution, climate change and other challenges.

“I want (visitors) to get a sense of the exploration,” he says. “There are still places on this planet we don’t understand. There’s still a lot we can learn.”


IF YOU GO

Twilight Zone
Where: California Academy of Sciences, 55 Music Concourse Drive, Golden Gate Park, S.F.
When: 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sundays
Tickets: $24.95 to $34.95
Contact:(415) 379-8000, www.calacademy.org

Cathy Bowman

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