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I can hardly pass a public aquarium without going in. I love them. But when I watch those finny torpedoes bolting about in the water, it raises in me two very different reactions. 

First, those creatures are delicious. Paired with garlic and butter, you have shrimp, lobster, mussels, scallops, trout. Is it any wonder when I visit the aquarium, I get hungry? 

I see them swimming around or crawling on the bottom, and I am like a hungry Mack Swain in The Gold Rush looking at Charlie Chaplin and seeing a great chicken, ready to pan fry. Those salmon, flashing silver in the watery sunlight — I see them pink on a plate, with some roasted potatoes and asparagus. And perhaps a nice chilled Gerwürtztraminer.  

When I lived in Seattle, I had a membership in the aquarium on Pier 59, and often when leaving, I would wander down to Pier 54 to Ivar’s Acres of Clams to satisfy the anticipation I had built up watching the wee beasties behind glass. Alder-smoked salmon was the perfect completion for a visit to see the silver-sided fish, catching the light like the shiny metallic jets built just north of town by Boeing. 

But the second reason to visit aquariums is for the meditation. Watching the beasties gliding through the aqueous brine lets the mind float as well. I sit against the wall before the large, main tank, and watch, hypnotized with the same fascination one has before a campfire — fish for chispas.

Monterey kelp forest

I am considering modern aquariums here. It used to be that — much as zoos used to be cages with iron bars — aquaria were ranks of small fishtanks along a wall and you would move from one to the next to see which individual species was featured there. But now, like zoos having built “natural habitats,” modern city aquariums are immersive experiences: huge tanks with either a plate glass window the size of an Imax screen, or a transparent underwater tunnel that lets you watch the underside of sharks as they waggle over your head.

The grandaddy of them all is the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California, with its giant kelp forest. The Seattle Aquarium is my second favorite. There are notable aquaria in Baltimore, Boston, San Francisco, New Orleans, Tampa, and Charleston, S.C. There are even aquariums in the desert or up in the mountains: The Shark Reef at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas, Nev.; the Denver Downtown Aquarium in Colo.; and Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies in Gatlinburg, Tenn. The biggest of all, with 10 million gallons, is 1000 feet above sea level in Atlanta. 

A week ago, I spent a day at the Virginia Aquarium and Marine Science Center in Virginia Beach, Va. It has grown fourfold since I lived in the Tidewater region 30 years ago. It is a vast complex, mixing mega-tanks of fish with smaller educational exhibits and hands-on stuff for kids. And there were lots of kids. Yelling, screaming, running, falling, crying, laughing. I could find a seat along the back wall in one room or another and watch the fish. The children seemed to cluster at the shark tank, leaving the other, smaller exhibit to me and a few adults. I could sit for hours and watch the piscean floorshow. 

There are smaller tanks, like the one with the horseshoe crabs. Another has ancient deepsea fossils, and you see how, across time, life changes, and stays the same. The trilobite and the horseshoe crab are clearly cousins. 

The most oneiric tank is the one with jellyfish. Those slow, meandering medusas, pulling tight, then relaxing to propel themselves aimlessly through the fluid universe are a kind of mantra, inducing that state of mushin no shin (mind without mind) that Zen philosophers aim for. It is a state where you clear your thoughts of all idea, and only feel the slow rhythm of the jelly — the rhythm of the cosmos before words were invented to sidetrack us. 

It is a state without ideology, without past or future, without expectation, without regrets. It is a state closest to the Biblical name of the deity: “I am that I am.” And for the minutes you stand in front of that backlit tank, with your mind detached from your body and floating along with the jellies, you are one with Creation. Then, of course, a gaggle of children shunts you aside and giggles as they watch the caps and tentacles before moving on to the next tank, or to the sharks — and the connection with the All is snapped. You may try to reconnect, but the mood is broken.

So, you move on to the next exhibit. For me, that is the large tank with the bony fish, which dart this way and that in seeming random patterns. But you watch over a span of time, and you begin noticing choreography. The fish form groups, the groups connect, disjoin, and then connect in new ways. 

It is very like the group movements of a Balanchine ballet, where several groups of three shift into groups of four before redefining themselves as a line, then opening into two circles and then into pairs twirling away in groups of three again. The counterpoint of movement is what makes Balanchine so distinctive, and so profoundly moving. 

And these hatchetfish do the same in the water, three this way, four that, a shoal becomes broken into individuals. They dart from this side of the stage to that with such grace, that tears come to my eyes. 

I’m afraid the normal aquarium-goer, like the visitors to art museum, spend little time with each exhibit. Mostly they pour in, point at the sharks or the mantas, perhaps look at the labels beside the glass to name which kind of shark they see, then move on to the next tank. To reach the Zen state I am after requires patience: sitting still for quarter- or half-hours at least, trying to empty your head of thoughts, just becoming one of the fish in the watery universe, until the water no longer exists and it is all universe. 

Others attend church to feel this, or take up yoga classes, or go driving aimlessly on rainy nights. Without occasionally refreshing your life by entering this state, I don’t know how anyone could bear the weight of the world.

seattle aquarium rainy day

It is one of the unexpected symmetries of nature that the tropics should spawn the zillions of exotic flowers and vines that are its trademark, but that the abundance of ocean life grows where the water is cold. Puget Sound is cold year round.

A short list. Puget Sound has: 50 species of sponge; 200 species of annelids; 20 species of anemone; 70 species of shrimp; 25 species of hermit crab; 20 species of seastars; 36 species of sculpin; 24 species of rockfish; 16 species of limpet; and four species of octopus, including the world’s largest at up to 20 feet across and over 100 lbs., the Octopus dofleini.

And the animals of the Sound are often as exotic and lurid as any humid liana or dripping orchid.sea pen 2

There is, for instance, the Ptilosarcus gurneyi, or seapen. This has nothing to do with the spiny bivalve of the East Coast. It is not even a bivalve. It is an aquatic plume with its nib in an inkwell, buried in the sandy bottom of the Sound. It is bright orange with a fringed plumage that stretches up to a foot long. It is luminescent and produces a bright green light when stroked.

Seapens belong to the same general group of Cnidarians as the sea anemones, but the fact that their polyps are small and organized into a featherlike colony obscures that relationship somewhat.

What binds most of the invertebrates of the Sound together is color. The richness of the colors on the seabed shame the peacock. There are the three sea urchins each a different lascivious hue. Stongylocentrotus purpuratus is dayglo purple; S. droebackiensis is forest green; and S. franciscanus is 6 to 8 inches across and bright red and purple. It is a basketball among urchins.

The white sea cucumber is white as milkglass with electric orange thorns along its length. starfish pile

The starfish were manufactured by Binney and Smith. The Solaster stimsonii has 10 legs and each is striped with blue showing brightly against the field of ocher. The bloodstar is blood red; the rose star is pink; and Leptasterias hexactus has six legs and shows the color of a pomegranate.blood star

The sunflower star has up to 24 fat legs and is a dull yellow with bright orange rays.

The sea lemon is a 7-inch long nudibranch that is lemon yellow — a translucent yellow back with amorphous scores of lacy tubefeet. Puget Sound has more kinds of echinoderms than anywhere else in the world.

There are lavander abelones; 8-inch-long gumboot chitons; light blue filaments on algaed rocks that are an annelid, Thelepus crispus; crimson anemones; giant barnacles (Balanus nubilus) that are over 3 inches across; red-tissued scallops with rock colored shells and dozens of black eyes peering through the feathery antennae around the seems of the shell; gordian-knotted basket stars; warty, transparent, hairy sea squirts and sea pork; a red and pink anemone that is 12 to 15 inches across its waving tentacles.Green anemone

There is the edible pride of the Sound, the Panope generosa, or geoduck clam (pronounced as “gooey-duck.”) It is a bivalve that weighs up to 20 lbs. and, with its oversize siphon, looks like a bratwurst on a sliced kaiser roll. The meaty parts of the geoduck are so large that it cannot close its shell.geoduck

The other edible wonder is the sweet-meated Dungeness crab. Others may brag on their Alaskan king crab, but to those who have tasted the Dungeness, so much bragging on a thing merely because it is large is gauche, fit only for a Texan. The Dungeness makes the AKC seem like a can of tunafish.

So far, I have barely mentioned any fish. But they are as abundant and varied as the invertebrates. There are prickleback, gunnels, tubesnouts, pipefish, sea horses, sculpins, clingfish, and spiny lumpsuckers among the odder finny wonders.striped greenling

The painted greenling has zebra-stripes of cobalt blue on a salmon field with random purple and white spots. The Gobiesox, a clingfish, is round and fat with a flat head and a sucker on his bottom and is tan, netted with purple and with white spots or freckles. One tubesnout, Aulorhynchus flavidus, is translucent and yellow-green. It is 3 or 4 inches long, but narrow as a drinking straw and one can see his organs twitching on his insides.

By far the best place to see these zoological delights is the Seattle Aquarium. It is the best aquarium I have ever seen, making even the Coney Island show look bush league.

And the most wonderful feature of the Seattle Aquarium is the dome.Aquarium big room

Inside a huge tank of seawater, there is a many-windowed dome looking up and into the fish-filled water. The tank is decked out to look like the bottom of the Sound, one side complete with harbor pilings to gather barnacles, and the other strewn with rocks and sand. And swimming around are many of the aquadynamic shapes common to Puget Sound.

The sides of the tank scintillate with the wavering colors of sunlight broken up by the prisms of the waves on the tank surface. Through the spectrum swim trout, tomcod, salmon and catfish. The silvery salmon look like something manufactured by Boeing, like unpainted airplanes with scales for rivets. The glint of sun runs from nose to tail as the fish whips its body, propelling itself through the fluid.

The brown trout show an irridescent green when the sunlight hits.octopus 2

Huge scrotal octopods, all valves, siphons and tentacles, are strangely graceful.

A lime-white seastar rests on the sandand over it a flounder, like some Arabian magic carpet, flies, wavering its Persian body.

There are tomcod with supernumerary fins and charcoal gray dogfish with white-limned fins.

Looking sleepy among the rocks is a wolf eel with its prizefighter’s prognathous face. He is metallic blue with black coindots in bands across his body. He slithers around the floor boulders prehistorically.wolf eel 2

A sculpin stares straight at me from behind the glass with two Japanese fans for fins. A round, flattened seaperch floats slowly past the window. He has neon blue skin showing through rows of brown scales. Fom a distance he just looks brown, but up close, he is a vision.

Near me on one of the seats (church pews, I almost wrote) were four children, kicking their legs back and forth, ready to move on to whatever was next along the wall, and their shepherd, an older woman who must have been an aunt, asked almost of no one, but talking to the kids, “Isn’t it restful to watch them swim?”

But it is only restful to the adult, who has need of it. The children cannot yet understand the longing for such things.