Few places can weave a common thread around a diverse set of attractions that allow visitors to touch a live shark, react to an attack in a destroyer’s command center, design a ship to haul cargo around the world, or get up close to the massive 16-inch gun on the deck of a battleship.

But almost everything at Nauticus, the National Maritime Center, is all about strength.

“The story we are telling is that everything is related to the power of the sea,” said Sheila Harrison, Nauticus’ director of marketing. “That includes economic power, naval power and natural power.”

Nauticus, a part of the Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network, can tell so many stories because it is home to more than a single attraction.

Besides its hands-on science and education exhibits and large-screen theater, Nauticus’ building on Norfolk’s riverfront also hosts the Hampton Roads Naval Museum, which tells the story of more than 200 years of local naval history. It’s also the docking point for the U.S.S. Wisconsin, one of the largest battleships built by the United States.

“We are a hands-on, educational science and technology center where you learn by doing,” Harrison said. “There are no guided tours. You come in and go for it.”

Indeed, it’s so hands-on that visitors get a chance to walk up and put their hands on a live nurse shark in the “touch a shark” tank. (It feels kind of like a very tough leather.) Or, they can make their own nightly weather report, complete with special effects.

Visitors on the recreated bridge of the destroyer Preble, which served from 1960 to 1991, are allowed to touch all of the equipment.

Among the permanent exhibits at Nauticus are displays that tell the story of 50 centuries of seafaring, from crafts made of wood, reeds and skins to today’s nuclear navy. Children can design ships on computers, taking tips from exhibits explaining the basics of vessel design, propulsion and structural strength.

The latter exhibit highlights the importance of suitable building materials, noting that recent research shows the “unsinkable” Titanic was made of a weak metal alloy, which may have left it more vulnerable in its 1912 impact with an iceberg.

Displays on commerce highlight shipping, modern ports and open water oil drilling. Bits used to drill wells deep into the ocean floor are on display, as well as models of oil-drilling platforms.

Visitors get a feel for warship designing, too. An interactive program mixes an audience with historic film clips, acted scenes and a facilitator who helps the audience design “battleship X” in response to concerns in the late 1930s that the Axis powers are violating treaties that limit the size of battleships and naval fleets.

The audience “design team” is presented with differing views about the trade-offs involving ship size, speed, and fuel capacity. Our design team initially failed, designing a large, cumbersome vessel that was too big to go through the Panama Canal and was unable to reach distant strategic targets without refueling.

On a second attempt, we designed a sleeker, faster vessel with 16-inch guns, which would become the Iowa-class battleships, which include the U.S.S. Wisconsin, docked outside.

Another interactive theater takes the audience into the command center of an Aegis-class destroyer where they must make split-second decisions about how to respond to various threats.

Inside the Nauticus Theater, visitors can see a variety of large-format films, including “The Living Sea,” which focuses on the power, significance and beauty of the world’s oceans. Also shown is “USS Wisconsin: The Last Battleship,” which chronicles the life and times of the ship.

In its changing exhibit area, through the end of the year, is the Powers of Nature, which highlights volcanoes, hurricanes, blizzards, earthquakes and other natural phenomenon. One exhibit tells the story of the series of earthquakes centered in New Madrid, MO, in 1811-12. They were the most powerful quakes on record—so powerful that the normally smooth Mississippi reportedly had rapids as the earth shook below. The quakes caused furniture to move in Washington, D.C.

A film shown in the cockpit of a P3 Orion shows the flight into the eye of a hurricane as experienced by a similar aircraft. The film shows powerful storms pounding the aircraft as it nears the eye wall of the hurricane, which gives way to a perfect calm once the eye is entered.

Tornadoes are not ignored, either. On display is part of a telephone pole that has a plastic drinking straw drilled completely through it, the result of a 1996 tornado.

Nauticus has a unique partnership with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, dating to 1998, when Jim Dixon, who had been in the agency’s charting office, was charged with promoting NOAA to the public in the region.

“To have a safe, ecological Chesapeake Bay, you want to make sure the ships navigate safely,” Dixon said. Accurate charts, he added, protect ecosystem health by making sure ships don’t run aground, and that channels are dredged in the right place and are not “over dredged.”

Displays outside his office highlight the role of charting and other navigational aids to shipping. Among them is a 1893 chart of the Hampton Roads area, showing the shorelines and hundreds of sounding depths in the water. Next to it is the 3-by-3 foot copper plate used to make the chart, which had to be etched, by hand, in reverse, to create the map.

On a nearby window overlooking the Elizabeth River, an overlay allows people to “see” what the bottom of the river looks like, according to charting, with the navigation channel clearly visible down the middle of the river.

NOAA’s Chesapeake Bay Office and its Maritime Heritage Program recently opened offices and displays at Nauticus. In June, the agency opened an education office to provide Bay-related information to teachers and the public and will soon begin hosting teacher training and grant writing workshops. “Our vision is to turn Nauticus into a major education and outreach center for the agency,” said Andrew Larkin, coordinator for NOAA’s activities at Nauticus.

In the works is a Chesapeake habitat display, which will recreate habitats from the shoreline to an oyster reef in a 20-foot-long aquarium.

(Opening in Nauticus’ changing exhibit gallery in early 2006 will be “Treasures for NOAA’s Ark” that will feature historical artifacts for the agency’s 200-year history.)

A highlight of NOAA’s presence is Science on a Sphere, which allows people to gaze at Earth as it would appear from 22,000 miles in space. Four projectors cast images on the 6-foot globe that seems to hang, and rotate, in mid-air.

The 10 sets of displays change every few minutes, shifting from ocean currents, to global weather patterns. Viewers can watch the formation of tropical depressions off North Africa as they turn into hurricanes while crossing the ocean.

Other displays show nighttime lights as seen by satellite. North America shines bright, while Africa appear to be a truly dark continent. The demarcation line between North and South Korea is obvious from the lights. China is bright, but neighboring Mongolia is dark. And the only lights in Australia are on the coast.

Similarly, an air traffic display shows the routes of all passenger jets in a given day. The United States is crisscrossed with lines until it is blotted out, but only a handful of flights cross the entire continent of South America.

On the second floor of Nauticus is the Hampton Roads Naval Museum, which was opened in 1979 on Naval Station Norfolk, but moved to Nauticus when it opened in 1994. Of the 11 museums operated by the Navy, it’s the only one devoted to a specific region—and it’s a reminder of the major role the Bay has played in naval history.

In fact, the fate of the United States was sealed nearby in 1781 during the two-and-one-half hour Battle of the Virginia Capes in which the French fleet successfully blocked the British Navy at the mouth of the Chesapeake. Without support from the navy, British Gen. Charles Cornwallis was forced to surrender to Gen. George Washington, closing the last major battle of the Revolutionary War.

The museum devotes a large display to the emergence of ironclads during the Civil War and the battle between the Monitor—called “a tin can on a shingle”— and the Virginia.

The era heralded in by that clash was fully realized a few decades later, as the museum recounts the story of the Great White Fleet, an armada that included 16 steel battleships, all painted white, which departed from Hampton Roads Dec. 16, 1907, to sail around the world on the orders of President Theodore Roosevelt to show that the United States had become a major power. It returned to Hampton Roads 14 months later.

The museum also tells of how naval combat returned to the area in the early days of World War II, as German U-Boats—finding U.S. coastal defenses unprepared—pillaged shipping along the East Coast after the war broke out. On July 15, 1942, two freighters exploded in sight of tourists on Virginia Beach.

Just outside the entrance to the Naval Museum is the biggest—literally—attraction at Nauticus: the U.S.S. Wisconsin, one of four massive Iowa-class battleship built for the U.S. Navy.

More than 1 million people have walked the decks of the 887-foot-long battleship since it was opened to the public on April 16, 2001—57 years to the day of her first commissioning by the Navy.

Visitors can tour the main deck and three topside levels of the ship, as well as peer into windows to see interior quarters. The lower decks are closed to the public because the ship remains a part of the Navy’s inactive fleet, which means it could be called back into duty —it last saw action in Desert Storm in 1990. A glance at the antiquated computers sitting on desks indicates that would take some time.

“If the ship was called up, it would take it about a year to get it up to speed,” said Emily Cass, a spokewoman for the museum.

But it may be just as well that people don’t tour below decks—they might never find their way out. During World War II, more than 2,700 men served on the ship, 1,000 more than it was designed to hold. It was overcrowded and there was no privacy. Sailors were lost in the maze of passageways. One story has it that a sailor, unable to find a friend for three days, finally mailed him a postcard setting up a time and place to meet.

Everything about the U.S.S. Wisconsin seems overwhelming, from the 16-inch guns that can fire a 2,700-pound shell 23 miles, to its two 30,000-pound anchors, each attached to a 1,080 foot chain weighing 35 tons—each link weighing 120 pounds.

But then, everything about Nauticus reminds one about the power of the sea—or the power at sea.

Nauticus / The National Maritime Center & Hampton Roads Naval Museum

Nauticus is located at One Waterside Drive in downtown Norfolk. Follow Interstate 64 to I-264 West. Take the Waterside Drive exit. Parking is available in several nearby parking garages.

Nauticus is open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. from Memorial Day through Labor Day. The rest of the year it is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, noon to 5 p.m. Sunday, and closed Mondays. It is closed New Year’s Day, Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve and Christmas.

Admission is $9.95 for adults, $7.50 for students age 4 – 12. Children 3 and younger are free. Discounts are available for seniors, military and AAA members.

There is no charge to visit the Hampton Roads Naval Museum, located inside Nauticus, or the adjacent Battleship U.S.S. Wisconsin.

For information about Nauticus, the National Maritime Center, call 800-664-1080 or 757-664-1000 or visit www.TheNMC.org

For information about Battleship Wisconsin and the Hampton Roads Naval Museum, call 757-322-2987 or visit www.hrnm.navy.mil

For learn more about other sites in the Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network, visit http://www.baygateways.net