Something Fishy

For someone from the prairie, an aquarium is a fascinating place. Where I grew up, people talked about going to “the river” without needing to name it as the Missouri, because it was the only river within 100 miles. In my experience, “fish” meant bluegills, perch, bass, northern pike, walleye, bullheads, carp, and breaded fish sticks at the school cafeteria every other Friday.

So what were the first kinds of fish we saw when we walked into the Denver Aquarium? Bluegills, perch, bass, and walleye.

Fortunately, that was only the beginning. There were sharks, relatively small but still inspiring respect. (We declined the opportunity, available to those 10 and older, to swim with them.) There were moray eels, in an off-putting lime green, with surprising teeth and cold, predatory eyes. The joke based on the Dean Martin song about “that’s a moray” will never be the same. There was the giant octopus stuck to the side of its tank in a tangled blob of tentacles. There were gnarled rockfish and spiny sea urchins and pulsating jellyfish. There were delightful rainbows of busy small fish in dazzling yellows, electric blues, and dapper white and orange stripes.

There were the otters. Two of them—perhaps it was their turn on duty—were swimming laps, showing off for visitors. They slid into the water, shot to the bottom of the pool, zipped past the glass where we stood and kicked off against it with the white pads of their broad hind feet, added a back flip or a couple of rolls for dramatic effect, rippled up onto the bank, and started all over again. Their short front legs stayed tucked against their sleek, muscular bodies, with propulsion and steering coming from their back legs and powerful tails.

They dived and rolled and spun in the water with casual skill, as cool as skateboarders grabbing air. There was no eye contact, no demonstration of delight at their own abilities, no apparent awareness of their audience—just that competence that is so far beyond arrogance it is the ultimate in cool. We moved on, reluctantly, only because a family came up behind us and we didn’t want to get caught shoving small children out of the way so we could keep watching the otters.

Almost as fascinating as the otters, though, were the seahorses. When I was about seven or eight, one of my Christmas gifts was a starter collection of seashells, about 20 of them mounted in a box. Among them was a seahorse. It was perhaps an inch long, a dried-up beige thing frozen in place with its little horse face and its curled-up tail.

These seahorses came in soft colors—pinks, blues, oranges, and greens—so perfectly camouflaged among the plants and rocks that we had trouble finding them all and watching them became a game of “Where’s Waldo.” Clutching the plants with their tails, they bowed and stretched and floated in the water like a miniature carousel in constant motion. One of them, temporarily losing its grip, flipped its tail repeatedly, rather like a calf roper on an off day, until the loop finally caught and it was safely anchored again.

For years, the word “seahorse” to me has carried with it the image of that colorless, rigid little creature from my shell collection. It was marvelous to have that image replaced by the sight of living seahorses. They were so delicate, so flexible, so colorful, so alive, that they were enchanting.

It was a long way from bullheads, carp, or breaded fish sticks.

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