Aboard the R/V Sally Ride: Adventure into the world of oceanic expeditions at Birch Aquarium exhibit


A new Birch Aquarium exhibit, opening Friday, Oct. 28, will transport visitors to the inside of R/V Sally Ride, the latest research vessel Scripps Institution of Oceanography (SIO) is launching into its fleet.

Featuring a 33-foot projected tryptic, an augmented reality interactive sandbox, and a wall of wonders among other elements, the exhibit promises an experience that will change some minds about ocean science.

Titled, “Expedition at Sea: R/V Sally Ride Gallery” it is the first of three exhibits opening inside the aquarium under the category “The Expedition.” Birch Aquarium director Harry Helling explained, “In this gallery we are trying new types of exhibits that will try to capture what it’s like to be on an expedition.”

The idea for this new group of exhibits came about when Helling joined the Birch Aquarium team a year ago. “We decided we wanted a bold new approach to how we talked about SIO science, and we launched our new idea, and the whole SIO community has embraced it. Using virtual reality, and augmented reality, we think we can do a better job of bringing our community into the wonders of science and the value of science.”

Since January, the Birch Aquarium team has been working alongside SIO scientists to create an exhibit that was built “in house,” as Helling put it. “We used a lot of our assets, we used a lot of students to pull this together, and we’ve created a new type of visitor experience.”

Director of Programming and exhibit curator Debbie Zmarzly said she hopes the exhibit will show visitors that science is not a boring subject.

“Helling’s idea really fit one we had of changing people’s impressions of science, of thinking it’s a subject you learn at school as a collection of facts presented in a dry and boring way, as sort of a memorization-type exercise. Science is actually this grand adventure in exploration and discovery. It’s a way of understanding our world driven by curiosity.”

The latest addition to the UC San Diego scientific fleet, R/V Sally Ride, is a state-of-the-art research vessel. The public will have an opportunity to tour it from noon to 4 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 30 at Broadway Pier, North Harbor Drive. The ship is named after Sally Ride, the first American woman in space and former UCSD faculty member.

The related aquarium exhibit features a 33-foot projected tryptic designed to bring the aesthetics of being on a ship to the visitor.

“It’s composed of three screens with different projectors sewn together with a computer, and we have a media team at SIO working with artists and producing this immersive exhibit that brings you into the experience of being inside the R/V Sally Ride,” Helling said. The tryptic will be updated as the vessel goes out on missions for an ever-changing experience.

To highlight the work SIO scientists do when describing the ocean’s floor, the Birch Aquarium team has created an interactive exhibit involving a sandbox.

“This exhibit is a box filled with real sand. Visitors will come and play with sand and create forms, and projected on it there’s a topographical map.As you change the contours of the sand, it will project that map on the contour. It’s continually updating,” Helling said.

To top it off, a “Wall of Wonders” portrays ocean secrets long-stored in the SIO vaults. From unique ocean rocks, to a 4-foot glass sponge, a football-sized rolly polly relative and other wonders preserved in alcohol, the collection communicates the importance of deep sea expeditions. “These are specimens from the deep oceans that we would have no way of knowing about if we didn’t have research vessels,” Zmarzly said.

A bonus that’s not part of the exhibit itself is “A Crab’s Eye View: Micro-Expedition across a Coral Head,” which mixes living coral, bleached coral and a 3-D video to explain the importance of these animals to the future of our planet.

Zmarzly said, “We tried to make this as immersive as possible so visitors understand the people who man a research vessel, the places they go to, the processes they use and their ultimate purpose — making a contribution to society at large. We’re trying to build the next generation of mariners willing to work on academic research vessels.”

The researchers point out that in the era of climate change, this mission becomes more significant than ever. “Climate change, and its impacts on our environment, have grown to a point where it’s going to take a broader understanding not from this generation, but future generations, to protect our planet,” Helling concluded.

IF YOU GO: “Expedition at Sea: R/V Sally Ride Gallery” launches Friday, Oct. 28 at Birch Aquarium, 2300 Expedition Way. Hours: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Admission is included with museum admission, $18.5 for adults, $14 for ages 17 and younger.