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Summer 2004


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Todd Newberry

An aquarium is not an underwater zoo. Zoos are for mammals. Yes, they have aviaries and snake houses, but the heart of a zoo is its ungulates and primates, its big cats and big dogs, its bears and elephants and the rest-its mammals. All the zoo's creatures breathe the same air as we do, feel the same tug of gravity, survive the same seasons. We share with them all the blessings and vicissitudes of living on dry land. But, more than the other animals at the zoo, mammals have faces. Their eyes stare back at ours, and when that happens, in Charles Hartshorne's phrase, "life touches life." We connect.

Aquariums are for fish and strange invertebrates. Here are the ultimate "they" of the animal world, inhabitants of our planet but not of our world, living profoundly different sorts of lives from ours. As we stare at these creatures, we may catch ourselves searching for anything we might share with them beyond mere proximity across a pane of glass. Faces? Fish have faces, but somehow they always seem to be in profile, like the faces on coins. In the aquarium we are largely safe from stares. Not entirely, of course—think of that octopus, those dolphins, the seals, an occasional big fish that seems to take us in after all.

At the zoo, we share so much with the mammals that we empathize with them in their captivity. In the aquarium, captivity can seem almost irrelevant to the fishes' sedate movements or the invertebrates' incomprehensible lives. When mammals do appear there, suddenly and uncomfortably we feel the tank's confinement. At the aquarium, don't lock eyes with the manatee. It is so...grandfatherly. To our dismay, we have connected. What is Grandpa doing in there?

Watch out for eyes. Eyes create a face, and a face makes a person. The cultural anthropologist Kay Milton has suggested that people who cherish wild animals have found in those other creatures what she calls personhood. Their faces, especially, help us—force us—to recognize in other animals the qualities of non-human but nonetheless real persons. And for Milton, when this happens, when we feel the personhood of other animals, they aren't just resources anymore. This is why so many save-the-animal groups feature poster-beasts with compelling faces—those pandas, those little foxes, those baby seals on their way to becoming a coat. A coat made of persons.

For the most part, the sea animals we encounter are perhaps too strange, too different from us to be "persons." Whatever we feel for faceless sea anemones and corals, jellyfish, worms, snails and clams and chitons, sea squirts and sea stars, unearthly sponges —whatever claim they may make upon us, they do not strike us as persons. Even most crustaceans, despite their familiar bilateral symmetry and their bulging eyes and long legs, do not seem to touch our hearts—they are not our cousins.

Beyond appearances, strange creatures live strange lives that set them even farther apart from us. Take hunt and hide. Most fish see pretty well, even if not very far. Their eyes' structure and water's visual limits suggest that if fish use their eyes for hunting at all, rather than for social needs, most use them for close-up scrutiny. Hiding from a fish is like hiding from a bird. It depends on lurking under cover or donning camouflage: clever patterns, deceptive resemblances, even transparency that imitates the water itself. And as for invertebrates, apart from marvels like mantis shrimps and octopuses and their kin, probably few see images and fewer still hunt with their eyes. Light per se, not image, is what their eyes detect.

Do they listen? Ear to the tidepool, the patient visitor can hear lots of little animal sounds even in that peculiar habitat. At sea, the low-frequency songs of some great whales carry extraordinary distances through the water. Sperm whales not only sing (through their huge noses), they emit terrific sonic blasts that stun their giant squid prey; dolphins echolocate. Midwater microphones reveal a sea full of fishy and planktonic noises. Here is how Jennifer Ackerman described the sounds collected by Marie Fish and William Mowbray in their great survey of North Atlantic fishes: "[T]hey thump, cluck, croak, bark, rasp, hiss, growl, swish, spit, scratch, and quack. Eels bubble and thud. Herring signal in soft chirps. Sea robins squawk, toadfish grunt, and striped bass utter an 'unk.'" What do they make of their parts in this cacophony? What do crustaceans make of their clicks and snaps? We have scarcely begun to understand the meanings even of the familiar bird sounds around us on land; what moods and events might these submarine languages signify?

Or again, many sea creatures taste their way through life, the way most insects smell their way. Settling barnacle larvae taste about for promising sites. Sea stars are among the many marine predators that hunt by taste. Some of their prey, rather than flee (when they get the scent of the predator near by), must resort to hiding, and they must hide chemically, with an olfactory counterpart of visual camouflage. We can see visual camouflage for ourselves: the tasty Viceroy butterfly imitates the toxic Monarch, the stick insect looks like a twig, the ptarmigan like the tundra. But how can we tell when an animal, hunted by a blind predator, hides by tasting like another-and what other? What tastes like what to a prowling sea star? We have very few words to convey distinctions among tastes—a deficient olfactory color wheel, so to speak. And so we can scarcely talk or even think about the smells and tastes all around us, let alone describe the tastes in the sea, even though they probably are as diverse as colors.

And touch: for us, what an undisclosed world! In the touch tank we can feel the echinoderm's prickles, the anemone's tentacular grasp, the skate's skin, the abalone's hard shell and fleshy foot. But surely these sensations of ours, as subtle as a poke in the ribs, cannot compare to what a fish detects from the pressures along its lateral line organ or what a worm or a crab feels with its tactile hairs or a snail does with its foot or what an octopus discerns with its suckers as it feels so carefully for its prey.

What, then, are the signals sent and received by the animals inside the aquarium world? The plate of glass between us and them really seals our sensory isolation from them. All we can do is look. At least at the zoo we can listen to the animals and even smell them; and touching the bigger ones, when we can, does seem to carry some person-to-person message, as when we pat a horse. In the aquarium, that glass keeps us from detecting...detecting I know not what. In the aquarium, we meet the animals only on our visual terms, not on theirs, whatever theirs may be.

It is hardly surprising, then, that as visitors to the aquarium, we feel so disconnected from its denizens, as keenly as we feel our connection with those too-cousinly captives in the zoo. And yet I think we can bridge this separation in certain circumscribed ways if we change the very terms of our encounter with the aquarium's animals.

First, let's recognize the aquarium for what it really is. What people encounter there is not nature itself, nor the sea in miniature. It is a series of stage sets and show windows. The more we try to pretend that we are looking through a porthole in Captain Nemo's submarine, the more we see a fish tank. The ecology is compressed, confined. We are at a show. The action on the stage is a tightly controlled representation—a selective "re-presentation"—of nature. The aquarium's exhibits have been filtered through multiple human decisions on the way to creating an illusion. An exhibit succeeds, I think, when we participate in its illusion, as we might in that of a magic show or a play. The tired phrase for this-the one about the suspension of disbelief-implies accurately that an aquarium is really a theater. Even its stage is an illusion: in the aquarium, the surface of the sea has been rotated from horizontal to vertical and, like the biblical waters, parted so we can walk dry-shod through darkened depths.

Like the actors in our human plays, the fish in an aquarium, though doubtless the real thing, are in a kind of ecological disguise. In these artificially simplified habitats, they must lead simpler lives than they would in the wild. But like the human actors who make us see some of life's truths with unnatural clarity, the fishy ones can help us focus on just a few events and relationships out of the welter of them that we would encounter if we were in uncontrived nature. Notice (but for now notice only) how these anchovies school tightly together, but those clown fish keep their distance from one another. Watch (but for now watch only) how these jellyfish drive their way downward while those drift through their descent. The illusions of the tanks, like those of the theater, do not fake, they portray. As a visitor, my opportunity is to see through the aquarium's managed portrayals, into the sometimes unmanageable complexities of life in the sea.

An aquarium, then, is a theater. Alive as its exhibits may be, it can be compared, as well, to that other extremely filtered place, a museum. Even in an aquarium with giant exhibits, such as the Monterey Bay Aquarium or the Aquarium of the Pacific, we are in a museum with fish tanks instead of dioramas or paintings along its walls. And after a while, many aquariums, like many museums, produce the same behavior in most people, that of just moving on. There is so much to see! It is too big a meal. After an hour or two, I almost expect a docent disguised as a waiter to come up and ask me, "Are you still working on it?" And so this habit of trudging on, moving along. I call it "glance and go."

In art museums, we are bound to move along too fast if we try to look at too many paintings. A curator friend has told me that in art museums she looks at a painting until, in the apt cliché, it speaks to her, as good ones will. That takes time and patience; it adds up to looking at very few paintings in a day. But many gallery-goers (or aquarium-goers) move along so relentlessly, because there is so much to see, that any painting (or any tank) they meet doesn't even have the chance to clear its throat before its visitor is gone.

If I remember right, in London during World War II a cautious National Gallery exhibited in rotation only one great painting at a time. Visitors told of seeing those works as they had never seen them before. They could not glance and go. There was nowhere else to go. They had to stop awhile and really look. The painting had a chance to speak to them. Maybe aquariums could try this. Maybe, in a special section of its own, just one exhibit could catch and hold our attention. We could ask the animals questions that would take them a little while to answer. Then we would sit awhile and wait for them to speak to us.

In fact, the Monterey Bay Aquarium now does this with some of its more stupendous exhibits. One gallery there even has a balcony with rows of cushioned benches where visitors can stop, relax, and contemplate. But I think this invitation to pause awhile ought to be extended to some of the smaller, quieter exhibits, too, where the visitor hurrying by is more likely to say, "Nothing's happening." I mean, for example, the ones with anemones and snails. Going back to my art museum analogy, I think of these tanks, in their focused intensity, as the still lifes of the aquarium. If the big tanks, with their milling crowds of fish, are the Géricaults, these little ones are the Chardins.

f we stop before a tank and give it our attention, if we draw ourselves to the animals themselves, the aquarium walls seem to recede. Focusing does this, as when we draw toward a friend in conversation and our surroundings melt into the background. And so I lean forward and look closely, paying attention. But I try to do this with questions in mind, and ones that my own observations will answer in an hour.

What questions can we ask? What answers can we expect? Maybe because we are used to TV nature shows that explain everything, maybe because we don't want to seem unsophisticated- whatever the reason, most of us tend to ask questions about other creatures that are just too ambitious for the occasion. And so our answers ("Maybe...") disappoint. For example, answers to most questions about adaptations involve so much (and generally such intricate) evolutionary theory-and are so impossible to test in an hour!-that they are only just-so stories that wither under that most telling of follow-up questions, "How do you know?"

When we pare our questions to ones we can answer promptly-or rather, ones that the animal itself will answer promptly-we end up with questions of only a very few sorts. That the animal answer for itself is crucial. If the animal cannot answer our question, we have to turn to books. But we are not at the aquarium to read books. Just as the aquarium is not the sea, the book is not the animal. My teacher, Donald Abbott, used to remind us students that books and animals all too often disagree; and when that happens, he would say, "The animal is always right."

What questions will the animal itself answer? We can ask it about its external physical traits, its appearance, its movements and how it makes them, and maybe the sounds it makes. But unless we actually see or hear a trait "in action," perhaps being used in an act of feeding or courting or locomotion, we can only speculate about what it does, what it "is for." We can count the animals in the tank and map their physical and social distribution. Do they tend toward the surface or the bottom, gather in the shadows or in the open, group together or stay solitary, change neighbors a lot or persist in their companions? As momentary bio-engineers, we can describe the components of movement-where the jellyfish's pulsating umbrella actually contracts, how the crab's legs bend, what structures move the fish. And we can describe an animal's here-and-now behavior, but we usually cannot do more than make a few stabs at "what is going on." One fish follows another-is it a chase? Are they playing? How do you know?

That's about it: appearances, numbers and distribution, a little about the mechanics of movements and other behavior, some social observations. If those animals speak to us, in an afternoon this is about all they can tell us that we can hope to understand. Satisfying the rest of our curiosity requires other venues than aquariums or else a much longer visit. So, at the aquarium, I skip the speculation, I put aside answers that start with that treacherous word "maybe," and I try just to watch closely what is going on. I am not after a great discovery. But I keep posing questions, because a day without questions is a day without shape.

Maybe so, but it sounds like work. Can't I enjoy an aquarium as theater without investigating the cast? Yes, but the very atmosphere of an aquarium seems to me to invite detective work. After all, until recently most aquariums were the anterooms of marine laboratories. They shared the lab's plumbing, and they shared the aura of unabashed fascination with the sea that pervades marine labs. Even in the super-aquariums of the past twenty years, I feel the old tradition of cabinets of wonder.

To work a long time in marine labs is to love them, improbable places that they usually are, like ships ashore. So, too, we marine biologists love the aquariums that so often are part of the labs. Maybe the scrutiny we bring to the aquariums' tanks is just an excuse to linger in these proxy habitats, only half-studying while we daydream, the way train buffs linger over timetables along the platforms, mind-traveling. We pose our questions and search for their answers from affectionate habit and to maintain a treasured bond.

Most aquarium-goers are not marine biologists. Most are there for a day's entertainment. To this end, some of the basins and tanks display the ferocious, even the grotesque, certainly the strange. The smart aquarist lets these qualities speak for themselves; as I have said, so does the canny visitor. Above all, the aquarium is a ballet theater. The mesmerizing beauty of the fishes and medusae resides not so much or so often in their bodies, I think, as in their motion. It is motion that transforms all. Almost despite their bodies, their motion makes these creatures into the dancer's never-ending leap. The more we linger, the more we see beguiling dances. As much as we may regret that all we can do is watch, the creatures, with their graceful movements, do give us a visual feast. And the more we watch—if at first without questions, then soon enough with—the more we notice. And there it is; that's the key—to notice.

Irving Berlin wrote The Song Is Ended (But the Melody Lingers On). I like to think that what lingers on after a day at the aquarium is the powerful experience, over and over again, simply of noticing. If an aquarium is for us inevitably a visual habitat, then the best wall labels are those that make us look...and look again, and notice what we did not see before. They nudge and point. So do discreet docents. That is what my questions are for me; they are my personal docents, nudging me and pointing to subtleties I would otherwise have missed. Sometimes during the night after a day at the aquarium, I wake up with a start. In my sleep, some creature from the day before at last has spoken. So that's it; so that's what was going on. Or, in a dream, I have a fresh vision of the medusa's dance. Or, after a day at the zoo, of a face. The melody lingers on.

Todd Newberry, emeritus professor of biology at UC Santa Cruz, is a marine biologist and invertebrate zoologist. A lifelong birdwatcher, he has just finished a book about that passion.

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