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December, 2006


by Valerie

Who isn't captivated by the colorful and exotic life that lives underwater? Whether it's a tropical freshwater river, a sparkling spring-fed creek, a crowded coral reef, or an icy Pacific bay, the faunal diversity is simply awesome. Now, how many people want to take the effort to meet these creatures in their home territory? It requires travel, specialized equipment, training for more advanced dives, and the willingness to get very wet. For many, myself included, it is preferable to remain dry and comfortable, able to breath freely and easily maintain body temperature, while enjoying the denizens of the deep. Aquariums to the rescue.

Larry at the Moody Gardens Aquarium in Galveston, TX, Nov., 2006.
Most people first enjoy the advantages of an aquarium when they are kids and empty their dip nets into a jar. Suddenly, all those previously invisible fish, bugs, and mollusks are swept from the dark water and brought into the light for us to inspect more closely. The rhythmic movement of a crayfish's gills, the rasping mouthparts of a snail, and the iridescent colors of a fish's scales are all revealed. Another world appears. It's little wonder that aquariums continue to be one of the most popular ways in which people keep pets. The privilege of observing secret underwater activities is mesmerizing.

Because most people have limited resources, small home aquariums are just a drop in the bucket, so to speak. The real magic of the underwater realm is revealed in large public aquariums. While obviously not as complete an experience as an actual ocean dive, a visit to one of these facilities is the next best thing, and is vastly easier to accomplish. From the time the first public aquarium opened in London (1853), people have been able to glimpse a world as previously unknown as that seen under a microscopic or in the most remote areas on Earth. The largest aquarium to open was the Shedd in Chicago (1930). As a child, I could never spend enough time in their superb "Balanced Aquarium" room, which consisted of a round space containing numerous tanks with tropical fish and plants, each a little gem; a waterscape in miniature. Nowadays, technical achievements make huge habitat tanks possible, so that one can look into a towering seascape complete with coral columns, big schools of fish, and large sharks. We can even be surrounded by the aquarium so that we are the ones enclosed in our own life-support systems.

While terrestrial zoos are great places to see animals, watching a gazelle, flamingo or tiger cannot produce the sense of discovery that one feels when peering into the depths of a tank filled with bizarre fish and other marine life. Aquariums really are like windows into an otherworldly, alien environment.

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