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The National Geographic exhibit “Pristine Seas: The Ocean’s Last Wild Places” sneaks up on you. It eschews the tried-and-true formula of many previous Nat Geo photographic exhibits—that is, a mix of portraits, landscapes, and documentary work by various photographers. Rather, “Pristine Seas” focuses exclusively on ocean life, and initially, this makes the exhibit just a teensy bit monotonous.
The exhibit is based on a series of explorations of little-known expanses of the world’s oceans, led by explorer-in-residence Enric Sala, who contributed many of the photographs. The aim of the expeditions is to help increase the percentage of oceans that are protected from 2 percent today to 10 percent by 2020.
Rather than exploring one particular species in great detail—as Wayne Levin did successfully with his series on the akule, a Hawaiian schooling fish—the exhibit ranges widely in subject matter, coming close to spreading itself too thin. Sea slugs and sea anemones? Got ‘em. Narwhals and walruses? Them too. Each of these species shares space with adorable blue-green gobies, gorgeous colonial creatures known as gorgonians, and predatory groupers nattily colored in maroon with light-blue polka dots.
But as a visitor wades further into the exhibit, it offers—pardon the pun—ever greater depth.
It’s hard not to fall for the ugly-cute, Muppet-like moray eels, particularly in an image that documents a comical face-off between a pair of them. And a photograph of a lion’s mane jellyfish—the world’s largest jelly (at right)—captures the perfect moment when its billowing tentacles are bursting with small, silvery fish.
Two images in particular offer fully realized tableaux. One, of a reef in Palau, is effectively split three ways: into an underwater space, surface waves, and a cloudy sky. The other, featuring a submerged American crocodile with bared teeth, suggests a scene out of Jurassic Park.
The specter of climate change lurks throughout the exhibit, whether it’s a polar bear clinging to the last remaining snow patch of the season or a beautiful iceberg that has broken off amid rising temperatures. In this context, it’s a relief to see images such as the one of a giant coral colony off Easter Island that’s shaped and hued like a Granny Smith apple.
Unlike many of the other species on view, the reef is described as healthy—a small bit of good news in the world’s troubled seas.
“Pristine Seas: The Ocean’s Last Wild Places” runs through March 27, 2016, at the National Geographic Museum, 1145 17th St. NW.