Tag Archives: aquarium

Diving in a Sea Grass Meadow



The little boat pitched and tossed like a wild horse on its anchor line under a purple and black sky in front of a remote marshy island in the northern Gulf of Mexico. The idea had been to spend some time alone on the island, but the sea was too rough to even think about wading ashore. My analytical thinking mind urgently pointed out that I was there with a broken rusty anchor, no bail cup, and no fresh water. I hadn’t checked the tide or weather radar before leaving. I hadn’t even told anybody that I was going. I broke every safety rule in the book

Marine biologists and writers, my husband and I run Gulf Specimen Marine Lab in Panacea, a tiny nonprofit aquarium and write books about the ocean. A precarious life, it is dependent upon the unforgiving sea for survival, both financially and sometimes literally.  Years before, I began spending time alone in the forest and along the shore in order to better handle the mental challenges of each day, and it had eventually become a major focus of this intense and always uncertain way of life.

Solo meditation at sea, even close to shore, has an edge to it that is not part of sitting in a building. It means being totally in this moment and alert to what is needed. There is no room for the mental cobwebs of restlessness and dissatisfaction. The weather worsened until I barely had the strength and energy to pull the anchor against a stiff wind and chop, but as I got underway and was running back to port, I felt alive and strong.

The next day I went back to sea with a much better prepared collecting crew from our aquarium to dive for sponges and sea whips further offshore. The storm had passed and the sea was silken flat and pastel baby blue. There was no horizon as the sea blended with the sky in the far distance. A limestone outcrop on the sea floor was covered with yellow soft corals and bright orange sponges. Silversides, spots, grunts, hogfish, and a school of 5 huge tarpon kept a discrete distance while a 5 foot spotted eagle ray swam over the rocks, its tubular mouth vacuuming the rock and its two wing tips pointed straight up.  A school of silvery look downs passed by, undulating back and forth in sinuous movements. Lying quietly amidst the rubble two brown nurse sharks tried to hide.

Amidst them a young green turtle cruised along. Maybe fourteen inches long, the sunrise pattern of yellow and brown streaks on the shell was perfect camouflage against the bottom of rock, sponge, coral and sand patches. It half swam, half crawled over the rocks, head down, tearing algae off the bottom.   Its effortless soaring flight, banking and tilting with slow relaxed strokes was a total contrast to the heavy crawl of nesting females on the beach. Who would have thought they were such free and graceful creatures, flying underwater, rising vertically to the surface to breathe?  I followed it for a while, my awkward flippers thrusting, pounding, swimming as best I could, but the turtle winged its way off the reef, out over the white sand bottom, put on a burst of speed and left me behind.

After working offshore for a few hours, we moved to an inshore sea grass meadow. It was full of tiny emerald green snails that none of us had ever seen before. Comb jellyfish flashed red, yellow and green in the afternoon sun on a falling tide. A spider crab sat motionless with her eyestalks rotated back in her head. Was she asleep? Do crabs sleep? I touched her, she swiveled her eyes up to have a look and scrambled away.

It was awesomely beautiful and the joy of simply being alive and present grew and grew to a thunderous level. Suddenly my consciousness shifted into a physical experience of no independent self apart from the ocean. Human bones and muscles moving through the water were simply and totally as much a part of that ecosystem and that place and moment as were the fish and the sea grass. Any sense of human or personal distinctiveness disappeared. The human was just part of the fauna in that moment. It wasn’t an idea, it was physical reality and the entire universe was there, totally complete and alive. Arising out of joy and gratitude, the awareness began to open into something transcendent. It absolutely needed silence and solitude to continue to unfold but the other divers were waving me back to the boat. As soon as there was the sound of words and voices, the unfolding stopped and I was again a separate human being swimming in the ocean. 

Seminars and Aquariums

As I came into the university seminar room and sat down, a young woman stood up and began her talk about jellyfish and other open-ocean animals that build transparent soft “jelly”-like bodies — who they are, what they eat, how they catch it, their impact on the world around them. The speaker was a graduate student and this was of one of a series of student talks on marine ecology.  The faculty members at the seminar led a discussion, intermingling knowledge from the published literature with their own personal experiences and insights  The professor directing the group had been my major professor years before.   He looked the same as ever, but I didn’t remember looking nearly so young as this group of graduate students.  Be that as it may….

The student ran some video footage of a salp, a creature with a more or less tadpole-shaped body that builds an envelope or house of jelly and then filters water through to capture microscopic food. An alien from space might look something like that, I mused, glittering, flashing, hanging suspended in space. What would it be like to live as one of these mid-water beings? A comb jelly, perhaps, floating, tentacles stretched out, waiting for some small creature to hit and be stuck then reeled in. Or one of the bioluminescent jellyfish in the blackness of the deep oceans. What is this universe that manifests itself in these eerie pulsing life forms anyway? WHAT ON EARTH IS THIS. All of our knowledge suddenly seemed like a tiny raft on a very big ocean indeed.

It was amazing — 18 people enthusiastically discussing the details of how a comb jelly traps its food, how it fits into the intricate web of interactions that make up this living planet. There aren’t very many people who care enough about that sort of thing to devote a career to it. Universities provide a place where they can find each other.

Public aquariums are another place where people like this find each other. I had an appointment early one morning with a scientist at the New England Aquarium in Boston. When we finished our business, I walked back out into the huge central display area. The aquarium hadn’t opened for the day but a new exhibit of cow nosed rays had just been completed and the press was there for a sneak preview that would hopefully get some visitor generating publicity.

About 30 people stood quietly around the huge shallow tank, eating bagels and muffins, half preoccupied with their own conversations and half watching the graceful soaring of several dozen rays as they circled and circled, slowly beating the tips of their flattened bodies, looking for all the world like kites come to life. As they passed, almost everybody reached out a hand to gently touch them or call them like a kitten. But they seemed unaware of anything other than their own slow flying reality.

Cutting through the soft murmur of conversation was an occasional shriek from the penguins in the adjacent large pool. Some stood on the artificial rock ledges and islands in their urban ocean while others floated at the surface, looking like ducks except that they paddled with their wings instead of their feet. They looked like birds in a way that evaporates when they stand upright. And when they dove they flew like falcons underwater, swerving and darting at high speed, until flight and swimming were one thing.

Sea turtles and sharks and tarpon and jacks, angelfish and mackerel swam endlessly in the 2 story tall circular center tank, moving forever in a counter clock wise waltz. They didn’t seem to notice how the stillness and the mystery of the place abruptly evaporated when the front doors opened and the first school field trip of the day poured in a flood through the entrance. Outside the big yellow buses were lined up 8 deep, waiting to unload. Where the adults had stood quietly in front of the ray exhibit, the kids squatted and jumped, running back and forth from one vantage point to the next. The air was solid with the loud shrieks and chatter of excited children who knew a good thing when they saw it.

It was easy to understand what these young fellow humans were thinking but the fish were tougher. Do fish think as they amble around? What would a fish think about anyway, what sort of fishy thoughts? What is the internal reality of a fish? Orthodox science emphatically asserts that they don’t, that only a few big brained mammals have even the possibility of awareness but in fact we really haven’t a clue one way or the other so why not wonder?

In smaller aquaria mounted in the walls rainbow colored small fish picked over their coral habitat, some looking for their own version of bagels and muffins, some just cruising about.  One tank had 3000 schooling silver menhaden, each only a few inches long. Their silver fluid movement glittered and flashed. The tank was solid fish, and it was the ultimate abundance, life coalescing out of water with intensity beyond comprehension.

The planet swarms and dances with life, in a multiplicity of forms that are nearly unknown on dry land. The graphic displays on the walls of the aquarium explained what little we know about camouflage and schooling and warning coloration and all that sort of thing but they didn’t come close to answering the real questions these living displays ask. An aquarium lays out the graceful and the bizarre, presents us with the ultimate Zen koan of biological  form and diversity, leaves us to wonder “What is this? What on earth does it really mean? How does it come to be?” and also like a Zen koan, leaves us to find that answer on our own.