The tanks at the Monterey Bay Aquarium are not your average fish tanks. There are no goldfish here, no guppies, no koi. These million gallon tanks hold sharks and sea turtles and rays and five-foot-long bluefin tuna. Schools of mackerel and sardine swim through the wide open spaces of the tanks in great shimmering clouds of speeding fish flesh. They cut and swerve in beautiful unison. And outside the glass, the masses gather and watch, smudging the giant window panes with their fingers and noses.
Of course, there are regular-sized tanks as well. These are the homes of the individual species: jellyfish and seahorses, octopi and crustaceans. These were interesting, the jellyfish especially I could have watched for hours, but they lacked the grandeur and awe of the large-scale, open-ocean tanks. I would have liked to sit and ponder the desultory movement of the jellyfish or the shy expressions of the seahorses--it was almost like watching a live action painting--but there were too many people rushing around, taking their turns at the glass, pointing and exclaiming, and then hurrying on.
When I was there, the aquarium was very crowded and, as a result, very stressful. It had the feeling of a bad rock concert as people pushed to get to the front of the glass to take a photo. They wore tension in their faces and carried before them a mood of harried malaise. I saw a grown woman snap at a six-year old boy because he tried to nudge past her leg to get a better view. "Shoulda gotten here sooner," she said as she widened her stance and cut him off.
In the midst of the crowd I felt a bit like a fish being pummeled in the current, but this was no tidy school of mackerel; these people were sharks. At the large tank, I peered into the blue depths and watched a sea turtle ease through the open water above me; he swam graceful and free. He approached the glass for a moment and paused to stare out at the crowd while people around me shoved and cursed and jockeyed for position to get the perfect shot.
Fish must think we people are strange beasts.
Still, despite the frenzied chaos, I admit that I was entranced by the aquarium. I am not usually a lover of fish or of the sea, but in the darkness below the surface, I could feel the magic of the water.