Get Thee to the Deep

This past Saturday was “dollar day” at the National Aquarium here in Baltimore, so of course Carolyn and I had to take advantage. Because, really, who isn’t fascinated by aquatic life? I mean that sincerely: is there a single person who hasn’t had a nightmare which involves swimming peacefully until suddenly being sucked under the waves by a shark, or a squid, or a giant octopus, or some other ominous creature of the deep? Ever since developing an obsession as a small child with large, lurking marine animals—an obsession that was permanently fortified by watching 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Jaws, and later Planet Earth’s “Ocean Deep” episode—I’ve been fascinated, and petrified, by The Deep.

It’s shocking to contemplate how little we know of the ocean. Dr. Sylvia Earle, the renowned oceanographer, posits that less than 5 percent of the ocean has been seen at all, let alone explored. But this is humanity we’re talking about, and I refuse to believe that humanity’s possibilities are not—literally, Joe Biden—limitless. Sure, there are dangers inherent in deep sea exploring—the darkness, the pressure, the tricky problem of not having oxygen, etc. But there’s just so much to be had, so much that’s so darn interesting. Like the thousands of undiscovered species hanging out in canyons and underwater waterfalls and volcanic rock formations that go beyond our wildest expectations. And yet we’d sooner hang out in space, where literally nothing exists except our own detritus (Gravity-style). Perhaps if Kennedy had made ocean exploration the next big thing, instead of the Moon, we’d have gotten somewhere by now.

In any event, the Aquarium was great. We’d gotten there early (at 8:30 for the 9 AM opening), so we spent some time standing in line with groups of excited children and parents who took turns heading to the nearby coffee shop. Thanks to our foresight, we were one of the first groups to enter the main building, which was fortunate because the crowds quickly got out of hand (at one point we looked out to see the line extending around the pier). The first exhibit we saw, called the Blacktip Reef, was also the largest—a giant pool filled with a wondrous array of creatures: black tip reef sharks (predictably, I suppose); huge, fanned-out rays of various types; a camouflaged, bottom-feeding Zebra Shark, which never moved; a fish resembling a marine hippy which the Aquarium website refers to as a Tasselled Wobbegong (among the best fish-names out there); adorable sea turtles; and all manner of fish of various hues and shapes that could be seen cruising about, graceful and beautiful. It was the perfect way to start things off, and as more and more children gathered, the excitement grew.

After the reef, we traveled upwards—the main building’s design has you constantly climbing up a maze of escalators which frequently leave you suspended over the exhibit you just came from, which is just an awesome way to do things—through various ecosystems. Along the way, we saw an octopus, some creepy-looking eels, a few bizarre shrimp-like creatures, much-celebrated seahorses, many colorful (and poisonous) frogs, snakes (another feared favorite of mine), and more adorable turtles—just to name a few. At the very top of the main building, we climbed the last escalator into a sun-drenched rainforest exhibit, complete with monkeys, sloths, and lots of beautiful birds. The verdant green, as a change of pace from the dark blue below, was sublime.

Then we submerged once again to what was for me the main attraction: the sharks.* Although it’s well known that the best sharks—your great hammerheads, your Great Whites, your tigers, your mako sharks—don’t do well in captivity, there are plenty of scary-looking sharks that do survive amongst the cramped conditions of an aquarium. In Baltimore, the sharks are housed in a dimly lit, circular tank that surrounds the patrons. It was in these surroundings that we were treated to this creature:

Sand Tiger

Holy hell! That’s a sand tiger shark, coming right at you. Look at those teeth! Can you imagine encountering one of those fellas while scuba-diving? Even in the safety of an aquarium, I felt like a little five-year-old all over again. And sure enough, while I pressed my nose against the glass as the beast glided past, I noticed a young boy doing the same right next to me. Nothing like wonder mixed with terror. I wonder if the kid’s seen Jaws yet.

* I should mention that for Carolyn, the Aquarium’s main attraction was unquestionably the dolphins. Now, I love dolphins, too—it feels like it’s borderline sacrilegious not to love dolphins in America—but not the way she does. You see, she’s a swimmer, and she wants to be a dolphin. It was quite enjoyable and amusing to watch the dolphin show with her, because I detected that every time she exclaimed at the dolphins’ antics there was the tiniest hint of resentment. I think she was jealous of the fact that the dolphins get to spend all day swimming and playing in a huge pool, while she is stuck doing things like going to work and listening to me rant about sports.

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