The heart of a great exhibit about whales

The heart.

The heart.

I’ll remember lots about the new whales exhibit at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, but most of all, I’ll remember the heart.

The life-sized replica of the blue whale heart. The one that has chambers big enough for kids to climb in. The one in which Little R played for 20 minutes. The one that inspired her to wonder aloud, “Dad, is your heart as big as this one?”

Sure, the exhibit, formally titled, “Whales: Giants of the Deep,” has lots of other cool stuff. Fully articulated sperm whale skeletons (including vestigial limbs). A dozen beaked whale skulls. A vocalization chamber in which you can hear the different sounds from different whales. There’s even a colorful cultural component, especially considering that most of the material in the exhibit is on loan from the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, home to one of the largest marine mammal collections in the world.

But the heart. Man, that thing was AWESOME in every sense of the word.

Little R and I checked out the exhibit late last week on the day it opened. It’s no surprise that we Villanos loved the exhibit; as the name of this blog (and my work website) suggests, I’m a big whale guy. I also had a bit of a personal connection to the show: One part of the exhibit that provides animation of a sperm whale wrestling a giant squid was powered by data from Mark Johnson, a fellow with whom I used to work when I wrote for the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

To be fair, much of the exhibit is pretty heady. The section about evolution, for instance, is complicated for little kids to understand. What’s more, echolocation, as a concept, is tough to grasp.

Even the parts of the exhibit that showcased whale-related Maori artifacts, the parts where verbiage and signage inform visitors how Academy scientists are working to study and sustain whale populations in our own coastal backyard and are bringing this research home to the museum—even those were a bit much for my kid.

Still, because of that heart (and also because R watched her Dad get TOTALLY amped up about the skeletons and the baleen and the vocalization chamber), she was excited about the experience for most of the hour we were there.

My advice: Plan ahead. If you’ve got younger kids, let them play in the heart and marvel at the skeletons, see if they’re into the vocalization room, then head downstairs to check out the rest of the museum. If you’ve got older kids, take the time to prep them for what they’re about to see, teaching them beforehand a bit about how whales went from sea to land back to sea, and how they use sound to communicate and “see” in the depths of the ocean.

Whatever you do, dear reader, especially if you consider yourself a whale-lover, don’t miss this exhibit. It runs through Nov. 29. Check it out! (And if you’re a San Francisco resident, go on a free day!)

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