When you're running a museum that welcomes more than 70,000 visitors a year, hosts rock stars such as Bob Dylan, and relies on staff members to catch the sea nettles and puffers on display, it's important to have a sense of humor.
Perhaps that's why the staff of the Calvert Marine Museum on Solomons Island, MD, named the rays in their tank after other famous "Rays": Norma Rae, Billy Ray and Ray Charles. Maybe that's why exhibit technician Tim Scheirer has hidden the faces of museum staff in his murals of sea creatures, fossils and landscapes. Scheirer put his boss, longtime director Douglas Alves, in the humerus bone.
Anyone finding themselves in a bad mood need only visit the otter tank, where Bubbles and Squeak swim and vamp for cameras and visitors alike.
Alves and the rest of the staff have a lot to be happy about. They're celebrating the museum's 40th anniversary with a renovated and interactive paleontology exhibit and a slew of upcoming lectures and events at the 29,000-square foot museum.
In addition, about two years ago, the museum started First Fridays, opening to the public 5-8 p.m. on the first Friday of each month, free of charge. Alves has also brought concerts to an outdoor pavilion at the museum-mostly country and pop musicians who are touring through the area. Bob Dylan, Bonnie Riatt and Merle Haggard have all played there. One-third of the museum's budget comes from ticket sales.
The museum is part of the Gateways Network, a collection of dozens of sites along the Chesapeake Bay that showcase the region's history and natural beauty. It is an excellent place to begin exploration of the area, as it showcases the three themes that define Southern Calvert County: estuarine biology, maritime history and paleontology.
The marine life is an obvious connection-Solomons Island sits along the Patuxent River, not far from where it meets the Bay in a deepwater harbor.
Solomons once boasted a thriving oyster industry; but most of that is gone, the result of disease and overharvesting. It's still possible to see a hand-tonger plying the Patuxent in the distance, though, and the museum has restored the J.C. Lore Oyster house to teach visitors about the canning and shucking industry.
Inside the museum are 15 aquariums that showcase the marine life that call the Chesapeake Bay home-from colorful jellyfish to sea horses and turtles. In the Discovery Room, children can touch starfish, puffers and hermit crabs. A docent is on hand to talk about each creature.
"We're showing local varieties here," he said. "We're not sparkly. We're not Nemo. But it's what's local, and it's our story."
In the new invasive species exhibition, the staff have dedicated a room to the famous "Frankenfish," a northern snakehead that made history when it showed up in a Crofton pond in 2002. Since then, northern snakeheads have become established in the Potomac River. With his typical humor, Alves suggests we can solve the problem by eating the bony fish-though that would take a lot of meals, they have become so numerous.
The Patuxent River, which is entirely in Maryland, shares so many characteristics with the Bay that scientists in the region are investigating the stresses to river's marine life and trying to develop solutions.
In that regard, Solomons is home to the Chesapeake Biological Laboratory, part of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science. Just up the hill from the museum, The CBL's researchers are working on cutting-edge crab and fish research, as well as pollution studies. People can visit the lab, also a Gateways site, mid-April through mid-December, with 2 p.m. tours on Wednesday and Friday.
Like many of the Bay's maritime communities, Solomons' story has changed over the years. Pollution, invasive species and diseases are stressing the Bay's marine life and have changed the peninsula from a thriving watermen's village to a community more known today for its excellent charter boat fishing and boisterous tiki bar.
Fans of maritime history will love the Calvert Marine Museum's nod to the rich tradition of boat-building and carving. Solomons' harbor once supported more than 500 fishing vessels, nearly all built locally. Bugeyes, draketails, and wooden yachts were built here over the last 200 years. Many are on display both in the museum and behind it in a workshop.
The museum has an active guild that restores boats. In the last year, it has redone the exhibit hall that showcases the boats and added a display to talk about the history of both Capt. John Smith and the War of 1812.
Also on exhibit are the woodcarvings of Pepper Langley, who was one of the museum's founders and is known for carving model boats, such as skipjacks, and the signs he made for many sea-going vessels. His son, Jimmy, is an exhibit curator today.
One part of maritime history that is not to be missed is the Drum Point Lighthouse. Climb the narrow spiral staircase and enter a bygone world, where a bell was the only communication with the outside world. Enthusiastic docents give several tours a day of the cottage-style, screwpile lighthouse that was decommissioned nearly 50 years ago.
The museum offers one-hour cruises aboard the Wm. B. Tennison, a historic Bay buyboat, which used to sail out to oyster bars and buy the crop from the watermen so they wouldn't have to stop working. Those who want longer tours can check out another Gateway site, the Solomons Visitors Center. The small building across the museum is filled with brochures about charter fishing trips, boat rentals and other island activities.
While other museums in the Bay watershed showcase boats, lighthouses and watermen, the one thing that sets the Calvert Marine Museum apart is its fossils.
By luck of geography, Calvert County is the place to find shark's teeth, whale bones and skeletal remains of creatures that roamed the earth millions of years ago. The county, like the rest of Maryland, was once attached to Africa. When the continents shifted, much of the bones were buried under the Chesapeake. They are unearthed by erosion at the beaches along Calvert Cliffs.
Alves has such an extensive collection that he can't even display it all. In "Treasures of the Cliffs," he and his curators focus on computer-assisted interpretive stations as well as Scheirer's renderings of the earth's crust-with an Adam and Eve embedded in the mantle for good measure.
One of the most fascinating finds in recent years is known as Isabel's Gift-a fossilized whale skull discovered in 2003 after Tropical Storm Isabel hammered the coast. So large and delicate was the find that Alves asked the Navy, which is stationed nearby, to help fly it by helicopter back to the museum.
If the paleontology collection has a crown jewel, though, it is probably the re-creation of the megatooth shark, the big-as-a-tour-bus skeleton suspended from the ceiling in one of the gallery rooms. About twice the size of the shark in "Jaws," this replica is one of only two in the world. The other is in South Africa.
Restoration is ongoing and active, making the museum less of a place that showcases the past and more of a living history exhibit. In a window just beyond the shark's perch, volunteers Pamela Platt and Christa Conant clean fossils with small, dental-like instruments. During a recent visit, Platt, who lives close to Calvert Cliffs, was cleaning a dolphin's skull that she estimated to be about 14 million years old.
It's easy to pair a visit to the museum with a trip to Calvert Cliffs, a state park just a few miles north that is also part of the Gateways Network. Alves says a lot of visitors like to stroll the beach, looking for fossils, then come to the museum to learn about what they found.
He is a great ambassador for the museum that's been his home for 20 years. He stayed, he said, because he's "just curious as hell what's going to happen next." And he wants to make sure the county's many new residents do not forget their forebears, the hard-working men and women who made a living on the water.
"There's less and less of a connection with the past by the people who live here, and the people who founded this museum understood that. You've got the guys who lived this coming in here, and you're also got people who wouldn't know how to start an outboard motor," Alves said. "We are not just a nostalgia thing. We are preserving something that's disappearing."
Alves keeps a suggestion box in front of the museum. Among his favorite comments was this one, left 10 years ago: "I'm 12 years old and I'm easily bored. But I loved it. I'm glad my mom made me come."
Those visiting the museum from far out of town, might consider a two-day stay. Solomons offers family-friendly hotels and romantic bed-and-breakfasts, as well as some of the region's best seafood restaurants.
Other attractions within a 30-minute drive include Battle Creek Cypress Swamp in Prince Frederick, Sotterley Plantation outside of Leonardtown and the archaeology-filled Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum near St. Leonard.
Calvert Marine Museum
The Calvert Marine Museum is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, except for Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day. It closes at 3 pm. on concert dates.
Admission is $7 for adults, $6 for senior citizens and $2 ages 5-12. Children younger than 5 are free.
Cruises on the Wm B. Tennison leave at 2 p.m., Wednesday through Sunday, May through October. Cruises are also scheduled on weekends in July and August and some holidays. Cruise admission is $7 for adults and $4 for ages 5-12. Children younger than 5 are free when accompanied by an adult.
The Calvert Marine Museum is on Maryland Route 2 in Solomons, Calvert County, MD. The museum can be reached by water, on the western shore of Back Creek north from the Solomons inner harbor on the Patuxent River, two nautical miles from the Chesapeake Bay. Dock facilities are free to visitors, although no overnight stays are permitted.
For information, contact the Calvert Marine Museum at P.O. Box 97, Solomons, MD 20688; 410-326-2042; or www.calvertmarinemuseum.org.