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Big Break Visitor Center recently unveiled a new attraction for park goers, a mural that depicts the aquatic world of the Delta. (Courtesy of Rick Kitamata/East Bay Regional Park District)

Big Break Visitor Center recently unveiled a new attraction for park-goers, a mural that depicts the aquatic world of the Delta, an area that's seldom seen yet plays such a vital role of the health of that ecosystem.

Across 28 feet of canvas, eight feet high, wildlife, both native and non-native, thrives. Depicting an afternoon in spring, viewers watch river otters, great blue heron, white pelicans and coots mingle with tule perch, black and striped bass, blue gill and Chinook salmon among tules, pennywort and water hyacinth.

The mural is the work of Ali Pearson of Alumni Exhibits, a professional artist with 25 years of creating murals, including others at Alameda's Crab Cove Visitor Center, Tilden Park's Environmental Education Center and the Visitor Center in Sunol Regional Wilderness. Pearson, along with her assistant Bridget Keimel, worked with naturalist staff in creating a visual statement of what the Delta represents.

Staff at Big Break Regional Shoreline wanted something that would give people a good feel for what the Delta contains and that would serve as encouragement for personal discovery.

"The mural gives a really good preview of what they can see on the surface but more importantly what happens under the water," said Michael Moran, supervising naturalist. "What's happening in the water is the most important part; it's the key."

Preparation began last November when Pearson met with park naturalists to come up with a species list that would represent the plants and animals people would most likely see and would give insight into specific Delta habitats.

"We then decided what the scene was going to be," Pearson said. "It was going to be the Delta as if you were halfway under water, above and below."

For authenticity, Pearson and Keimel took kayaks onto the Delta to document habitats and their residents firsthand, using an underwater camera to probe the murky depths. After paper sketches and a smaller painting were approved, work began on the mural itself. In total, the two artists spent 160 hours on the painting alone.

For Pearson the mural tells a story about a thriving habitat worth expending curiosity to take a look. "There's a lot there and some amazing animals live there," she said. "It may not be pristine wilderness but these are very accessible aquatic habitats for people to see for themselves."

Seeing for themselves is exactly what park staff hopes the mural will encourage people to do -- take a five-minute walk down to the shoreline, join in on an organized park activity or investigate on their own. By forming an association with individual species, a diving great blue heron, a frolicking otter or an open-mouthed white pelican, visitors may come to realize that they have influence over each species' survival.

The inclusion of non-native species, such as black and striped bass, bluegills and water hyacinth, reflect the stress the Delta faces. Moran describes it as a paradox because regardless of problems, a thriving natural system exists.

"There will always be a natural system, it's just a matter of will it be the one we've evolved along with that makes California so rich," he said.

One of the themes guiding the park district is what can each person do to help the Delta. The park district sees Pearson's mural as a way to whet visitors appetites for the value of real thing, the outdoors.

"There's always bird life and clues to other critters, like beaver-chewed trees, piles of scat or animals trails and footprints all over," Moran said. "It's a lot more exciting in real life."

IF YOU GO
Big Break Regional Shoreline is at 69 Big Break Road, Oakley. The Visitor Center is open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekends. Call 510-544-2753, www.ebparks.org/parks/big_break.