At the Monterey Bay Aquarium:
I stood alone on the upper level, facing the kelp forest, watching the silver sardines swim in their schools. They were a murmuration, the swarm of them moving together over the course of split seconds, their scales flashing gold and red sometimes. Turns out you can’t call it a murmuration when it’s fish – it’s called simply shoaling or schooling, but schooling is too simple a word for that gorgeousness of flight I watched. I could have stared at it for hours. They moved like conversation, to and fro, parts splitting off to make new sentences, flying back into each other to complete paragraphs and whole pages. It looked like song, visualized.
Other creatures in the tank were mesmerizing, too, of course. I love the leopard sharks and the kelp bass the size of my car that stays near the front round window as if he knows he’s the star of the show. But the flight-song of those sardines is my favorite aquarium magic. Yes, I love the cuttlefish, with their chromatophore skin (I feel them – with my hot flashes and tendency to blush, I can’t help but think they wouldn’t choose to be so showy and placed in an aquarium for it, but that’s my anthropomorphism showing). The octopuses this time finally seemed kind of amazing instead of gross (Lala is wearing off on me). We watched a day octopus sleeping, and we watched it dream. Scientists struggle to agree on whether they dream or not, but this layperson can tell you with assuredness that they do. He was tucked against his rock, all creamy and pendulous, his one visible eye tightly shut. He puffed out his siphon. He wriggled. He twitched, his arms uncoiling and then coiling back up again. His skin mottled quickly, brown spots, and then flashed back to cream. He twitched again, his eye shutting more tightly closed and then relaxing. His siphon panted. He was obviously chasing cars.
But still, those sardines were more magnificent. I’d always thought they swam together for safety in numbers – some might be picked off but not all. But in fact, they actually look like one big fish making the other actually huge, predatory fish believe they’re tiny and weak in comparison. There’s a lovely metaphor there – stronger together, etc – but what I really love is watching that shared brain in action. Like watching wind, if wind was silver and had intention. And there, in the middle of a Christmas holiday week, surrounded by approximately 400,000,000 children, I was alone with the magnificent, awed and hushed.
(Not the kelp forest exhibit, but from the Open Ocean exhibit.)