maui ocean center’s new humpbacks of hawai‘i exhibit & sphere: immersing guests in the world of gentle giants

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to swim among Hawaiian humpback whales, the gentle giants of the sea? Inside Maui Ocean Center’s (MOC) brand-new, multi-million dollar “Sphere,” you’ll encounter what looks and feels to be just that. For the first time in the entire world, guests at Maui’s own aquarium can experience the mystery and majesty of one of the largest mammals on planet Earth as no one has before.

While the Sphere was under construction for approximately a year, who among us didn’t wonder as we drove past, “What in the world is going to be under that shiny, white dome?” “This is the culmination of three years of preparation and work for us,” says Tapani Vuori, MOC general manager. “The Sphere is a groundbreaking, fully immersive humpback whale experience. You are part of the ocean environment with the whales once you’re inside the dome. It’s the first of its kind in the history of the U.S., and even around the world.

“Until now, people have mainly observed humpback whales from above the ocean’s surface, witnessing their power and size during their infamous breaches,” Vuori continues. “Our exhibit transports guests deep into the ocean, giving them an inside look into the complex and vibrant lives of Maui’s humpback whales, and allowing them to forge new connections with one of nature’s greatest marvels.”

The exhibit showcases the whales’ nomadic lifestyle, allowing visitors to immerse themselves in their songs, signals, and social bonds, and even create a personal whale song. The migration of humpback whales is presented through interactive exhibits, educational displays, and––the crown jewel of the exhibit––a virtual whale encounter in the Sphere. At 58 feet in diameter, the new 120-seat sphere combines 3D glasses and 4K laser imagery to blur the lines of reality with film technology that’s new to Hawai‘i. The Sphere screen is larger than the average size of an adult humpback whale, placing viewers in perfect proportion to the whale’s true size…with room to swim.

The genesis of “creating an exhibit too large for a tank” began with Benjamin Kahn, president of Coral World International (MOC’s parent company). German filmmaker Daniel Opitz (Ocean Mind), who initially proposed creating a first-of-its-kind virtual encounter with humpback whales in a 3D, immersive Sphere environment, has extensive experience filming humpbacks in Hawai‘i. For this project, he spent two years filming humpbacks in Maui’s waters—under the supervision of, and with permits from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)—and several years editing the footage. Chris Masterson, MOC’s exhibit designer, created the Humpbacks of Hawai‘i exhibit’s content to be a comprehensive experience with the sphere film.

The exhibit hall focuses on the whales’ nomadic lifestyle and migration routes taken globally, regionally, and within Hawai‘i. Humpback whales’ nearly 6,000 mile round-trip journey from Alaska to Maui’s warm waters each year marks one of the longest known mammal migrations. You’ll learn about the whales’ behaviors throughout the epic journey to Hawai‘i—the roles of different whales, and how they play, eat, and travel as a pod each year.

“Once you enter the humpback exhibit hall, you may wonder about the abundant sandalwood in the space,” Vuori says. “In Hawaiian culture, humpback whales and sandalwood were deeply connected.” In fact, as noted in the exhibit, in the Kumulipo (Hawaiian creation chant), guardians were put forth on land to protect their counterparts in the sea. The palaoa (ancient word for whales) were protected by the ‘aoa (ancient word for ‘iliahi (sandalwood). The whale is also revered as an ‘aumakua (spiritual protector) for certain families, and was generally viewed in ancient times as a divine being. “We wanted to present the spirituality of the humpbacks and their connection with Hawaiian culture,” Vuori adds.

The film itself is truly magical. You don 3D glasses and lean back in uber-comfy chairs to enjoy the show. Your MOC host acknowledges you may feel the desire to “reach out and touch the whales,” and gives you permission to do so. In fact, a boy in front of me does just that throughout the approximately 13-minute experience. The special effects have their way with me also, and I feel tempted at one point to lift my arms and “touch” a whale’s barnacles as it cruises past me just above my head.

Filmmaker Opitz wrote the inspiring narration, with oversight by Ed Lyman, Large Whale Entanglement Response Coordinator with the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary. The hauntingly beautiful music, scored by Ingmar Rehberg of Yesian Music, is punctuated with actual humpback songs recorded in parallel with the filming. Male humpbacks emit patterns of regular and predictable sounds remarkably similar to human musical compositions. They produce a series of repetitious sounds at varying frequencies, and these sequences are known as whale songs. Marine biologists say the songs are among the most complex in the entire animal kingdom. On any given day, all male humpbacks in Hawai‘i sing the exact same song, even though it changes as the season progresses. This year’s song starts off where last year’s ended, which means whales have amazing memory capacity.

Spoiler alert: Opitz’s remarkable film’s most dramatic moment occurs when a cow, calf, and male escort are approached by another male. While escorts actually do very little to help mothers raise their calves, they keep predators at bay and fend off other male humpbacks who often try to muscle their way in and force their attentions on the mother. The film’s most poignant scene features a calf lying peacefully on top of its mother.
Guests’ reactions to the Sphere experience have been phenomenally positive. “I’ve heard comments like ‘spiritual’ and ‘awesome,’ and someone actually mentioned they nearly cried when experiencing it,” says MOC General Manager Vuori.

The Sphere replaced the grassy Nalu Lawn, which was relocated near the center of the park with a supplemental keiki playground. With the Humpbacks of Hawai‘i Exhibit & Sphere dedicated to whales, the Aquarium’s Marine Mammal Discovery Center was removed, and its exhibit material donated to NOAA Sanctuaries. The former space was replaced by Kaho‘olawe: A Story of History and Healing dedicated to the past, present, and future of Kaho‘olawe.

“The Humpbacks of Hawai‘i exhibit was built to create a new, one-of-a-kind experience for Maui and Hawai‘i at large,” says Evan Pascual, MOC’s marketing and public relations coordinator. “We involved stakeholder groups in the design process by inviting scientific, education, government, community, and cultural groups to provide their feedback on the initial design concepts, which actually changed as a result of this collaborative process. The Sphere space was also designed to serve as a venue for community organizations to use for special presentations.”

Opitz’s film is also garnering national attention. South by Southwest® (SXSW), which celebrates the convergence of the interactive, film, and music industries, recently announced “Humpbacks of Hawai‘i” as a finalist for their Interactive Innovation Award.

“It’s our responsibility at Maui Ocean Center, as the marine experts, to inspire visitors and locals to really understand the special place that is Maui,” concludes Tapani Vuori. “If not us, who else would?

–heidi pool

AT A GLANCE…

WHAT •
Humpbacks of Hawai‘i Exhibit & Sphere, at Maui Ocean Center, the Aquarium of Hawai‘i. Sphere admission is included in the Aquarium PLUS package, which costs $34.95 for guests ages 13 and up; $31.95 for seniors age 65 and up; $24.95 for children ages 4-12.

WHERE •
Maui Ocean Center, 192 Ma‘alaea Rd., Wailuku. Parking is free.

WHEN •
Maui Ocean Center is open daily from 9am to 5pm. The Humpbacks of Hawai‘i film is screened every half hour daily from 10am to 4pm.

HOW •
No reservations are required! You can just show up. Guests should plan to spend about two hours at the park. Info: http://www.mauioceancenter.com.

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