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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!

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