I’m 10 feet away from a humpback, marveling at how graceful the mammoth whale is as it glides by me, and wondering what its haunting clicks, squeaks and moans mean. All around me is the deep blue of the Pacific, yet not a hair on my head nor a toe on my feet is wet.
The Immersive Experience in Hawaii’s Underwater World is one of the highlights of the 5,000-square-foot Hawaii Wildlife Discovery Center, which is slated to open this month in Whalers Village in Kaanapali Beach Resort on Maui. The six-minute video is screened in an intimate theater without music or narration; the only sounds are from the ocean animals shown and waves rushing to shore.
“Amazing, isn’t it?” said Hannah Bernard, executive director and co-founder of the Hawaii Wildlife Fund (HWF), a nonprofit dedicated to the protection of Hawaii’s marine fauna. “You feel like you’re right there — swimming among coral reefs, whales, sharks, dolphins and sea turtles.”
The Center is the result of a collaboration between HWF; the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary (HIHWNMS), of which Kaanapali is a part; and Brookfield Properties, which manages Whalers Village.
HWF and HIHWNMS created 30-plus exhibits about Hawaii’s undersea life, whaling era, cultural values and conservation work with contributions from several partners. They include the Will Smith Foundation, the nonprofit that sponsored the Immersive Experience; cousins Patrick Ching and Kahi Ching, renowned nature artists who contributed spectacular murals; Hamline University in Saint Paul, Minn., known for its success with experiential learning and innovative, hands-on technology; and the Multi-scale Environmental Graphical Analysis (MEGA) Lab, a research facility at the University of Hawaii at Hilo whose scientists, journalists, photographers and filmmakers use digital media to study and share information about marine ecosystems.
“This is a discovery center, not a museum,” said Bernard, a marine biologist. “To me, a museum implies a passive experience; people view displays and read a lot. Discovery centers offer hands-on, interactive opportunities, which make learning a lot more fun, interesting and meaningful.”
During my visit, I picked up bits of buttons, brushes, bottle caps and more items to fill a box in the Kids Zone. It’s startling to see the diversity of debris that winds up on beaches and in the ocean — all of it deadly to marine animals who ingest it, thinking that it’s food. Turning a troubling situation into a positive one, children can use the trash to make a take-home art piece, a unique souvenir. They can also write questions on whale-, dolphin-, turtle- and monk seal-shaped sticky notes and leave them on the room’s Wonder Wall. HWF and HIHWNMS staffers post answers on the center’s website, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram within a week.
Hamline University curated the multimedia storytelling tools in the adjoining room, which can be played on an 82-inch screen using an interactive kiosk. Among the options are 45 locally produced, Maui-focused videos of 1.5 to 8.5 minutes in length. Visitors make selections on the kiosk’s touch-screen menu; topics range from “Voice of the Sea” to “Kumukahi: Stories of Living Hawaiian Culture” and “What Does it Take to Disentangle a Whale?” Additional rich content for some of the subjects — such as detailed maps and 360-degree images that virtually transport clients to remote habitats — can also be accessed through the menu.
Clients will also enjoy meeting the naturalists and historians who are on hand to give short talks and answer questions about the exhibits, including a collection of 19th-century scrimshaw, a 20-foot replica of a 104-foot whaling ship and a life-size (16-foot) model of a humpback whale calf.
A portion of the proceeds from the center’s admission fees and gift store sales will help fund new displays and outreach programs as well as HWF’s research, conservation and educational efforts.
“It’s important for visitors to know they’re supporting all of that,” Bernard said. “Hopefully, when they come and learn about Hawaii’s incredible marine resources, they’ll be inspired to join us in taking care of them.”
Hawaii Wildlife Discovery Center