Driving on Honoapi‘ilani Highway toward Ma‘alaea it is impossible to ignore the round white ball of a building that has popped up near the Maui Ocean Center aquarium. Watching its construction, I was very curious about what this would become. I had no idea that it was related to their new humpback whale exhibit, which opened last Sunday. This groundbreaking exhibit on the ocean’s gentle giants virtually puts you in the water with the humpback whales in a way that has never been done before.
I was fortunate enough to get a sneak peek of what they were working on in early January and meet the filmmaker Daniel Opitz of Ocean Mind (an organization “committed to creating award winning documentary films and immersive learning experiences that penetrate the viewer at an inner level of consciousness with educational, environmental, and philosophic content,” its website says) and Maui Ocean Center exhibit designer Christopher Masterson. The sphere brings a 3D immersive experience with the humpback whales. All of the footage comes from the seas around Maui.
Size matters with this exhibit. Everything is on the massive scale of a whale. When you walk in there are giant wooden arcs in the ceiling, and the opening portion of the exhibit is literally the size of a whale.
“This room is proportionately the size of a mature female humpback,” says Masterson. “We are not trying to be blatant. We don’t want to give you the impression you have been swallowed by a whale here. Our intent is to architecturally do two things: One, give people the perspective of how big these creatures are in a very subtle way. And two, the whole story goes from micro to macro – we start with global populations and talk about the 14 different humpback segments around the world, we talk about the regional migration, and then the floor. This whole floor is an actual migration map that you walk from the feeding areas in Alaska, then to Hawai‘i. You get perspective of the distance they go, 6,000 miles.”
This exhibit is multisensory. You see the whales, but take a deep breath. That is the scent of sandalwood in the air. In Hawaiian culture the ‘iliahi tree, sandalwood, is the protector of the kohola, or humpback. The exhibit has many interactive games and screens to learn about the biology and habits of whales in a fun way.
“You learn about the behaviors of the whale and then you go in and watch the behaviors,” says Masterson. “It’s simple, but we are trying to keep up with kids and their devices, and grab their attention and energy here. You will even smell the sandalwood. In one corner you will see the Hawai‘i significance of that: Everything in the ocean has a protectorate on the land. For the kohola it was the ‘iliahi – the sandalwood was the guardian of the whale. So we have all this sandalwood in this room visually, and you get the fragrance of the sandalwood too.”
This entry hall of the exhibit is the beginning of the humpback whale experience. You line up and wait for the doors to open to the interior of the sphere, lined with cushy seats that lean back. A Maui Ocean Center docent passes out high-tech 3D glasses that translate the film into a breathtaking up-close whale experience. This was a vision Opitz had around five years ago when he pitched it to MOC’s higher-ups.
“This sphere itself and the 3D experience, the entire thing, came out of my mind,” says Opitz. I pitched it to the company that runs the Maui Ocean Center and it took us two years to convince them to be ready for it. And then it took us like three more years in the making to do it actually. So I am technically the director, producer, and I developed the main idea.”
Watching the film really takes your breath away. The visuals and the sounds all move through you and the lifesize, close-up three-dimensional effect in 4K is astonishing. Just getting to check out a humpback whale up close and in perspective drew my full attention.
“The joy of the film is that the dome is 58 feet in diameter, so when the whale is floating in the room, that is the illusion you will see because it is three dimensional,” says Masterson. “That whale is lifesize. You will feel like you are in the water with a humpback whale. Everything is proportion conscious through this. Again, we do not want to hit people in the face with it, but after awhile you get the idea: They are big!”
Getting the humpback whales inside this sphere was a big project too. The film was shot over two seasons. One season was spent on the NOAA research vessel, aptly named the Kohola, using rebreathers. They had to get new permits to dive like that, so the planning in advance was hectic.
“I have to say the workflow of generating those images was very pioneering. We were shooting two seasons here in Maui waters. One season we worked off the research vessel with NOAA. On those permits we were in the water with the rebreather, dive gear, and a team of three shooting the whales, as we usually do. But in order to get those whales into the sphere and to get this emotional 3D – almost holographic – experience, we partnered with a company of CGI specialists in Germany.”
Then they added some digital magic.
“What we did was use the real image, the real footage, and recreated the reality by turning them into 3D models including texture, the particles in the water, everything,” says Opitz. “Even the underwater seamount is based on a photogrammetry model of an underwater pinnacle we shot in ‘Au‘au Channel. Everything seen there is 100-percent real but it went through a one-year post-production recreating the real image in order to get it in here. With regular footage, no matter what you would have tried, it would be technically impossible. So that was the insanity behind it.”
The songs you hear during the film are from a whale off of Ka‘anapali. Recording a clear whale song can be tricky. At times there are too many whales and an underwater recording yields a cacophony of sound. So the team had to wait until the end of the season.
“It’s the end of April,” says Opitz. “We are waiting for the last whale to get a clear sound. We took a boat and went out to Lana‘i and there was nothing. We went out towards Molokini, there was nothing. The captain said, ‘OK let’s go to Ka’anapali across the wind line,’ and it was rough. I mean it was like the worst conditions you could possibly have to shoot whales or record them. In rough seas and stormy wind conditions, we were just doing our recordings and then the whale came right to the hydrophone at the very end. The hydrophone was actually not going to the bottom it was floating on the surface because we’re drifting so fast because of the wind. At the very end he came to the hydrophone to check it out and then he disappeared. I like to tell the story that we found the last whale of the season. Maybe a day later and we would have been screwed. “
The songs of the whale have always affected Opitz. His curiosity over their communication has created an lifelong bond with the sea mammals.
“I came here in ’96 because of the whales,” says Opitz. “I used to study marine biology but I was very bored by being in university. Yet I always had the connection with dolphins in particular and also whales. I’m super intrigued by the communication of the whales and dolphins, and whales in general. That’s what brought me here 23 years ago. I went diving yesterday at Makena landing and I sat down for an hour, just listening to the whales. It is still un-freakin’-believable when you listen to it. This is what drives me. I’m not a scientist but I see there’s a desperate need to bring that world to the people so the people on land at least get an idea of what’s happening out there. I am not saying they need to understand, it’s just they need to be aware there’s something there. As I always say when you start to work with the whales in general – and especially with the humpback whales – with the communication, with their songs, your mind can’t stop. There is just an endless list of questions and miracles.“
Inside the sphere there is an interactive display where you can create your own song from the whale sounds.
“These plaques on the wall, these displays are about behaviors, and this correlates to the migration map,” explains Masterson. “So as you are walking through Alaska you are learning about their different feeding behaviors. And then you get into the singing. While you are learning the singing, we have this video for kids on how the whale produces these sounds. Then you can come into our kids station, where each note is a different whale unit, and you can create your own whale song.”
I have been on dozens of whale watches yet I learn things here from this film and in the displays that I had never seen or heard before. There is a visceral reaction that surprised me.
“My main approach with this project has always been and always is to create an emotional impact,” says Opitz. “What the people make out of it, that’s their thing, but I want them to be touched emotionally. I always say straight to the brain and into the heart. I want to create an awareness that there is something stunningly beautiful out there. As I say in the narration, I want the viewer to at least get an understanding of how big, how beautiful, how powerful these creatures are, and that they do have something like an awareness, a consciousness, that they do communicate.”
The opportunity that the sphere opens up for learning on this scale is enormous. Humpback whales are the just the beginning.
“When I pitched it I provided a list of six subjects,” says Opitz. “We picked the humpback whale which was my favorite. It just totally made sense with what I’ve done in the past and what we have here in Maui. We are currently already talking about a follow-up, which is going to be about the vertical migration of plankton. We go from very big to very small, which I totally love because it’s both connected to each other – those creatures are feeding from those small ones. So that’s going to be the next challenge because we are technically starting from scratch again. We had the problems with the big objects and now we’re having problems with a small object. The list is endless.”
There is a growing movement in conservation to step back, keep out of habitats, and safeguard from a distance. Watching this film, I know I will never need to dive with the humpback whales, but I have gotten a taste of the excitement, the feel of what it is to see a pod swim above me. I know I want these creatures to be protected. Tapani Vuori, the general manager of Maui Ocean Center explains it well.
“Until now, people have only observed humpback whales from above the ocean’s surface, witnessing their power and size during their infamous breaches,” said Vuori. “Our exhibit transports guests deep into the ocean, giving them an inside look into the complex and vibrant lives of Maui’s humpback whales, allowing them to forge new connections with one of nature’s greatest marvels.”
For more information or to go see the Maui Ocean Center Humpback Whale exhibit go to Mauioceancenter.com/humpbacks-of-hawaii/.