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The Age of Aquarium

monterey-silhouetteI like watching animals, four-legged, finned, or human. As a writer it is integral to my work that I observe the behavior of others in order to grasp what motivates them. It is best to do this in the creature’s natural environment: on the veldt, under the waves, or at a city café. I have been fortunate to have this opportunity, but I am not alone in my penchant for gawking. Judging from the crowd at Monterey Bay Aquarium in California, fauna viewing is not an exclusive pastime of maladjusted writers. We seem to gather instinctive joy out of ogling other beings, mesmerized by their quotidian affairs, eager to glean their intimate habits. The stranger the beast to us, the more fascinated our interest.

monterey-aquariumThe obsession begins at a tender age. There is the stuffed critter that accompanies our bedtimes; the books in which we learn our mother tongue through the help of illustrated wildlife; the movies about lost pets or talking bears, ducks, foxes, and fish on an adventure. Eventually, we may visit our first lion within the confines of a zoo or meet a shark inside a tank. That physical encounter is significant and will become more so for future generations as habitats diminish. The faces of the children around me hold the same expression, wonder. They inspect the circling bluefins, the undulating jellies, the placid turtles. In groups of varying attention they listen to fun facts about the mating of puffins, touch the starfish, giggle at penguin antics. For most this will be the only time they will get to experience our marine wilderness.

monterey-seahorse-btI remember the emaciated tiger I beheld at my first menagerie, pacing its empty double-barred cage — within its miserable face were eyes that contained other worlds. Decades later, as an adult I confronted that uncanny look in its unfettered complexity at Ranthambore National Park. Only then did I comprehend a little of the appeal behind our scrutiny of other species. Stare into a snake’s slits, a cheetah’s pupils, a dolphin’s aperture and they reveal a peculiar familiarity. They are of us yet separate; sharing common traits of physiology while existing as complete realms unto themselves. We examine them, collect data about them, survey them behind glass. Still they mystify us by a sideways glance, a long probe, an abrupt confrontation that puts us in our place. Baffled by our need of them and our power over their fate, we grapple with how to subsist with them. We enslave them, idolize them, make sport of them, gather them in containers, and anthropomorphize them, always measuring them against our distorted standards. Though we share one planet, it seems our universes can only collide.

monterey-birdWhen we gaze into an animal’s life, what is it we hope to catch? I find tranquility while contemplating crimson-gold sea nettles flow past me through an electric blue background. A black-necked stilt wading through planted grass fills me with nostalgia. As the anchovy school spiral around the kelp forest exhibit, I swim with them in my imagination. For a brief moment I partake in their grazing ritual, mouth agape, a teeming underwater fabric coursing through me. It is hallucinatory and like all such excursions comes with a price, but not one I will pay. I can walk out into the coastal California sunshine. Free to wander away, I can leave the captive creatures of the deep revolving around their artificial domains. I can relegate the starfish, anemone, otter, and manta to mere circus attractions.

monterey-reef-btAs we struggle with our responsibilities towards them, what role will places like the Monterey Bay Aquarium play in this complicated puzzle? Will it be too late for the field trippers being taught about the dangers of contamination to devise holistic solutions to protect the ocean’s depleting diversity? Which of the youngsters purchasing plush whales as souvenirs will regard the kingdom of non-humans as valuable unto itself? In the midst of raging debate over the morality of zoos and vivariums, the responsibility of stewardship belongs not just to these institutions but also each of its patrons.

monterey-fish-btA few steps away, under the cobalt Pacific depths, untamed cousins of all the aquarium dwellers perform their dance. If I am to do these fauna justice I have to become a participant. I have to further decrease my consumption and commit to my recycling habits. I have to learn about aquatic ecosystems. I have to support the unbiased scientific research that carries on behind the scenes. I have to do more than visit wildlife reserves and national parks to gaze at the inhabitants. I must be a partner to the beasts who provide me with so many life lessons. Then, I can look them in the eye.monterey-bt


Plastic pollution is a major threat to marine wildlife and the Monterey Bay Aquarium is working to be part of the solution by avoiding single-use plastic. Visitors are encouraged to bring their own reusable bags and, when purchasing gifts, choose items that are environmentally responsible and made by local artisans.

Have a favorite children’s book about animals? Have a favorite underwater creäture you have seen? Share in the comments below. 



83 replies »

  1. You write so eloquently AND take such great photos, what a joy this post is! We visited the Monterey Bay Aquarium a couple of years ago and it was fascinating, I particularly loved the jellyfish exhibit – so hypnotic. Your images really captured the moment!

  2. Stunning photos and commentary urging action. Children’s books about animals, all written and illustrated by marine biologist Kathryn Orr: Story of a Dolphin, Shelly the Conch, Leroy the Lobster. There are others on her website. And newly released Myrtle the Purple Turtle by Cynthia S. Reyes, a picture book about racism. Thank you for this post!

  3. Atreyee, a wonderful and timely piece with many great take-aways. I especially like this one:

    “In the midst of raging debate over the morality of zoos and vivariums, the responsibility of stewardship belongs not just to these institutions but also each of its patrons.”

    Coincidentally, we just watched an interesting documentary about how surfers around Europe are combatting ocean pollution. It left me pondering what could be achieved if we all made a small effort to do something, preferably every day:

    • Hello Tricia! Hope you are doing well. Thanks so much for your kind compliment. I’m excited to check out the Youtube link you sent regarding the surfers. It sounds like a wonderful project. It always seems as if our lives have little impact, but they certainly do! Not only for the environment but to corporations, institutions we patronize, government policies, and one another. Every decision we make affects the world we live in. This year I’m looking to increase the positive impact of my travels both environmentally and towards local communities by participating in more clean-up projects and ways to give back.

  4. That’s so cool that you went to Ranthambore. We recently went to Kanha National Park in India to see the tigers and it was amazing. Your sea gooseberry photo is awesome. We just went to the Monterey Bay Aquarium this weekend and loved it.

    • Thank you so much for your kind comment. I loved experiencing the jungle life in Ranthambore, though the highlight was undoubtedly staring a tiger in the eye. Was last weekend your first visit to Monterey Bay Aquarium?

      • It’s an especially special experience when you consider how few tigers are left in the wild. Nope it wasn’t our first visit to the aquarium, but we enjoy going to learn more about the creatures in the great deep blue. For instance, our guide was telling us that marine biologists still don’t know how an octopus knows when to change its camouflage and colors.

      • Agreed…so many of the big wild creatures are diminishing, it’s a privilege to be able to encounter them in their natural habitats. I liked the educational guide talks at Monterey Aquarium, they provide so much cool information about underwater creatures.

  5. Beautifully written and your photos are gorgeous. I particularly like the one of the people in front of the turtle tank. I was at this aquarium a long time ago but remember it fondly. I love water creatures and agree that we all need to play a role in stewardship.

  6. The photos are so incredibly beautiful. The conclusion was unexpected and stunned me as a moment of ultimate truth: “Then, I can look them in the eye.” I like reading your articles. Thank you!

  7. I hope for everyone who loves visiting aquarium to be able to visit Monterey Bay Aquarium. 🙂 It’s like the aquarium meter in terms of quality. Great post, especially you’re writing like a pro.

    • Indeed, so many things we think are harmless turn out to harm our environment. Part of it is wanting to become more aware of such things and part of it is making an effort every day to change the way we live. Thanks so much for sharing your ideas.

  8. Some of these pictures! Wow! Were these taken in an aquarium? The first one looks almost like an illustration and the ones with silhouettes remind me of performance/theatre.

    I’ve always been uneasy with zoos and more recently with aquariums too. I always think they don’t look very happy too :/. I love the issues that you raise in your posts.

  9. Beautifully written thought provoking post, Jesse and Atreyee. And wonderful images, as always. I share your deep concern for our environment and your love for nature’s creatures. I do not feel good about where we are headed and what our leadership is doing about it.

    • Thank you Jane. Who knows how far down the road we will go before concern for the environment becomes more than an issue for “nature lovers”? In the meantime, we try hard to do our little part.

  10. I found this a very powerful post. The dilemma between admiring animals for leisure or aesthetic reasons versus a genuine desire to protect them and preserve their environments is something that I’ve thought about a lot myself. Unfortunately, a commitment to the latter is a lot harder than the former. But if aquariums like this can inspire visitors to make a difference, then I truly believe they can be valuable institutions.

    • The doing is always harder than the looking. I was inspired by the number of practical things that the aquarium is doing and though it will take more work on my part, I want to be more vigilant about my own plastic use and about what seafood I choose to eat. I appreciate you sharing your thoughts about aquariums and conservation with me.

  11. An apt post as I’m going to the London Aquarium for the first time today. The photographs are stunning and your post catches the magic of places such as these whilst still raising important ethical questions about their place in our society. Well run with consideration and care I am happy I can have the opportunity to visit and enjoy the wonders.

    • I can no longer afford to simply enjoy watching wildlife, so I am happy to be a patron of places that are looking to implement conservation solutions, work with local fisheries, and educate their visitors. I am going to work even harder to do my little bit. I would love to hear back from you as to what you thought about the London Aquarium after your visit!

  12. These photos are just magnificent. Your words give much to ponder without being shrill. I love to observe other species, too. I often find them much more fascinating than humans.

    • Thank you for saying this as my intention is never to tell others what to do, but to share my own struggles and through my ramblings perhaps have someone think about things differently than before.

  13. I enjoyed visiting zoos and aquariums as a kid. As an adult — I hated them. The more I realised how trapped I felt in situations, I began to see what it might feel to be trapped in a tank or cage. I imagine setting birds free and fish back into the sea. 🙂 Visiting national parks made me feel stronger about those feelings. You touch upon an important topic, curiosity, survival and freedom. I wonder if there is another way to strike a balance?

    • 🙂 Have you ever read “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone”? In it there is a scene where the main character empathizes with a captive snake at a zoo because he shares a similar living situation. Later he magically (though unintentionally) releases the snake. At this point a true balance is going to be impossible to achieve. Some claim that zoos and aquariums are the only way to save animals from extinction which makes it even more difficult for me to be complacent about watching these creatures behind their glass boxes. I think any real solutions will happen if we as a species are willing to make huge sacrifices about how we live.

      • I haven’t read it. 😦 “I think any real solutions will happen if we as a species are willing to make huge sacrifices about how we live.” Couldn’t agree more!

  14. If only we weren’t so anthropocentric and short-sighted. It is to be feared that those traits will only worsen with escalating human overpopulation. While my attitude toward zoos is ambivalent and visits are always tinged with sadness, the alternative would even be even sadder. Thank you for raising awareness about our responsibility for conservation.

    • It is a challenging topic to talk about. Who do we look after first: Ourselves, our family, our tribe, our country, our species….? The answer determines so many outcomes. The easy shortsighted solutions always seem so alluring. I really appreciate you sharing your thoughts with me about this.

  15. These are amazing shots! Mesmerizing. Great topic as well. We were happy to learn recently that California banned single use bags in all the grocery stores, and even more interesting to me, that was already in effect the first day I went shopping after hearing the news!

    • I learned while there that the Monterey Bay Aquarium was one of the major supporters of the state-wide ban against single-use plastic! While traveling through this part of California, I am discovering so much about how locals, non-profits, and businesses are advocating for the environment in different ways.

  16. Such beautiful photography and a well-written story. Seems that we are failing at our stewardship of this beautiful planet and all of God’s creatures. I’m thankful for those people who are taking action to rectify the issues.

  17. I love walking around those huge tanks looking at all the various kinds of fish. It’s like scuba diving in comfort. Anyway, I enjoyed the post. I hope visits to aquariums inspire other visitors to think more seriously about their environment too.

  18. Beneath the water is strange territory for me, AG. I can feel desolate at a lion in a zoo, but fish never touch my feelings. It’s an incredible but totally alien world. But not one that I feel we should litter with plastics.

    • 😆 It is difficult to feel a kinship with jellyfish. They seem so unlike us. Unfortunately it is the larger marine animals (whales, dolphins) and birds who are suffering the most from excess plastic littering.

  19. An excellent and thoughtful post. This is so well written and brings up the important topics of humanity to animals, preserving wildlife and discussions about why and how we use animals and marine life for our own human entertainment. Globally wildlife is threatened everywhere, as man encroaches their space and natural habitat.

    • Thank you Peta. There are no easy answers to preserving our wildlife and every solution is going to restrict the lives and movements of someone, animal or human. But I do believe that it is up to each of us individually to decide what we want for the future and how we are going to act to make that happen. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts with me.

  20. Wow–both your words and your photography are compelling and rich! I just discovered a writer named Eva Saulitis, who writes about her engagement with orcas in the Alaskan sea after the Exxon Valdez spill–your writing reminds me of hers. Thanks for a lovely, lovely post…

      • I have that fear of recommending things too…especially things I hold dear to my heart. Saulitis’ eloquent essay “Wild Darkness” in Orion Magazine was piercing, addressing a lot of what I have been thinking about lately. I was sad to hear of her passing, but I am excited to read more of her incredible works and so humbled to be compared to her by you. I am deeply grateful that you took the risk and shared this with me.

  21. Wow, such a wonderful article, and a well-pointed signal for animals’ future! I read these days about a dying whale who was discovered off the coast of western Norway with more than 30 plastic bags in its stomach… 😦 We have a so beautiful planet and we MUST share it with all animal species, and our children MUST know about them not only from the books! Best wishes, Catalin

    • Most of the marine animals found these days have massive amounts of ingested plastic. A global culture of quickly made throw-away goods is depleting resources and making the livelihoods of those who work sustainably very difficult. I think it is each of our responsibility to change that if we want future generations to enjoy the things we are taking for granted: clean air, fresh water, and green spaces. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts about this subject.

  22. Beautiful photos. I’ve always wanted to visit the Monterey Aquarium and your post has further inspired me. I agree with your assessment – we’re looking for ourselves or something in the fish or animals that we can relate to. But you’re right, children (and adults) need to take more away from the experience than a stuffed animal. The information is out there with regard to ecology and what individuals can do personally. The question is whether they’ll head the advice and if it will be in time to preserve these magnificent creatures.

    • I loved that the Monterey Bay Aquarium is focused on a ton of conservation efforts from how to breed aquarium creatures so that there won’t be a market for catching them in the wild to working with local fishermen for a sustainable seafood industry. The complex solutions they are working on are not easily digestible or swiftly implemented and many won’t show quick results, but they are there. Now it is up to each of us to decide what we want for the future and what we will do personally to change it. Thanks so much for your thoughtful comment.

  23. Beautiful pictures and lovely perspective! The first time when I visited such a big Aquarium I was amazed at the sea life it captures before us, so near!I love watching jelly fish, they are most graceful! These finned creatures appear to be more wonderful than the animals in zoos.

    • Jellyfish are incredibly beautiful to watch and are the oldest multi-organ animals on our planet. Their population explosion in recent years, however, is causing concerns about ecosystem changes. Thanks for sharing your aquarium experience with me!

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