The Earth is about 71 percent covered by water, as we’ve all heard. That means we’re in the minority here on land. It also means we’re missing out. That 71 percent is oceans, rivers, seas, lakes, ponds and streams, and though we can and have explored it here and there, it’s hard to really grasp what’s just under the surface, and harder to get a chance to see it without the help of snorkels, scuba gear or submersibles. It’s unfortunate, because that world that we’re surrounded by is full of some of the most exotic, unique, alien life anywhere. Colors range from ghostly clear to electric (sometimes literally) and there are all manner of amazing shapes, patterns and rhythms to the underwater world. In a departure from more species-based exhibits that the Shedd has done in the past, Underwater Beauty aims to examine the art of life beneath the waves. The exhibit, a Shedd exclusive, opens today, and invites you to aim an artistic eye at the denizens of the deep.
Each part of the exhibit looks at a different aspect of the art of the oceans, streams and rivers. First, you’ll be invited to explore shimmer, with a school of expertly lit silvery false herrings making their way back and forth over a coral landscape in a circular tank that maximizes the viewing space. While shimmer may not be a particularly academic element of art, it’s certainly an eyecatcher at the outset.
The exhibit opens up into a Color room which dominates much of the exhibit space. Visitors will be treated to tanks full of beautiful plant and ocean life arranged for the colors of the rainbow, as well as coral displays with filters that’ll allow you to see how colors change with changing light.
This room did what we were hoping it would with the concept—broke it down into concepts that children could understand and explore while still presenting these weird and wonderful creatures and environments in an elegant manner. Tanks are pristine and carefully curated, with what seems like almost a florist’s eye for color and pattern balance to set off the tank’s residents, which is something we appreciated throughout. Lighting, too is carefully considered, to highlight the shimmer of the herrings or the electric blues of some of the fish. The color room even features a mantis shrimp, a critter that got some internet notoriety a while back due to its incredible abilities, just some of which include the ability to see more colors than any other creature in the animal kingdom, and whose dactyl club appendages are so fast and fearsome that they can break glass and (theoretically at least) shatter armor. It’s a truly incredible creature, and one that’s actually quite rare to see at aquariums, since they’re notoriously vicious to other sea life and can break traditional glass enclosures, and though prominently featured on the entryway description of the exhibit, this amazing animal can be missed if you don’t explore each corner of the color room.
Colors flow into Patterns, and here you’ll see what seemed even at the media preview to be the favorite tank to observe. A rainbow of striped, spotted and patched fish in every color imaginable swim through the coral here. You’ll recognize angelfish and a few others, and learn about even more, like the blue discus and giant clam. The colors and patterns all serve their purposes, whether it’s to camouflage the animals, confuse their predators or attract a mate, but they’re also amazingly detailed and dazzling. It’s one of the big moments for Underwater Beauty—and a moment where viewers, hopefully, will feel an emotional impact.
As Tynnetta Qaiyim, the aquarium’s VP of Planning and Design puts it, “At Shedd Aquarium, beauty is weird, different, stunning and unexpected. Underwater Beauty gives us the chance to celebrate the countless forms beauty found in the aquatic world and become inspired to take action for beauty worth saving.”
Round the bend and a more kinetic aspect of the aquatic world’s beauty will emerge, with Rhythm being the next point of focus. This section features pulsing jellies, undulating eels and a giant interactive motion control installation that allows you to jump, wave and gesture at various sea creatures and see them respond in kind which we’re sure is where it will grab little children the most.
The final room, a quiet corner around a small bend to finish the exhibit, is called “Move You” and contrary to what that usually means, is a place for quiet contemplation. Its sole feature is a beautiful freshwater tank that represents a challenge successfully met for the Shedd—a carefully researched blend of cohabitating species to dazzle and relax its audience. Simply lit with ample bench space, this was the part of the exhibit that really stood out to me most—simply inviting you to take a moment and a deep breath and truly observe, with no other goal, as fish glide by silently and a gentle soundtrack plays at a just barely audible level.
Underwater Beauty represents something new for the Shedd Aquarium, and we appreciate the direction that they’re taking. As always, they maintain their goal of driving people to conserve and protect the world’s oceans, lakes and streams, and to educate them about the life within, but this time, as it was to some extent with Washed Ashore, by using art as the lens and tool. With so much to see in such a small space, Underwater Beauty may be best explored at quieter times than Memorial Day Weekend, but for such a considered, curated view of the diverse beauty of both freshwater and oceanic environments alone, we recommend making a stop at this special exhibit. Underwater Beauty opened today at the Shedd Aquarium, and will run through 2019. To find out more about the exhibit and plan your visit, click here.