With his artificial hips and game attitude, he watched the feeding of two plump, playful sea otters, touched bat rays and starfish, stood beneath a crashing wave and laughed as a diver exclaimed nervously about a hungry eel that was tapping on his mask.
At the end of our visit, up an escalator and waaaay down at the end of the hall, we found the most exalted exhibit of all: the Secret Lives of Seahorses. I had forgotten that seeing these creatures inspired my original desire to visit the Aquarium, so seeing them felt serendipitous, a bit of extra magic for the afternoon. (These outrageous life-forms will be there until 2012, plenty of time to have them render you speechless on a few occasions.)
On a pilgrimage from the Bay Area many years ago I attended the arrival of the Jellyfish at the Aquarium (they're still there). It was a melancholy time in my life, and as I wandered among the mysterious, slightly psychedelic jellies they gave me a strange kind of hope for a simpler, more pleasant existence.
While the Jellyfish could be from Outer Space, the Seahorses are the stuff of pure childhood fantasy. If they didn't exist, Disney would have had to create them. In fact, their shape recalls sculptures of ancient Greek horses, or the square physiques of the centaurs in Fantasia.
Coming close to each tank, our faces light up with delight. As the glow of beautiful living habitats reflect in our now young eyes, I remember the words of proto-environmentalist Rachel Carson, "What if I had never seen this before? What if I knew I would never see it again?" Such profound beauty opens my heart.
My favorite, priceless gift this holiday season: my husband and my father quick-stepping around the corner of the Seahorse exhibit like two little boys, interrupting my reverie over the leafy sea-horses. "You have to come see this," they announce proudly. "The males give birth!"
Apparently seahorses are the only species on earth where guys have this privilege. So I promptly follow them to watch a video of a big daddy sea horse working hard to pop the cutest little baby seahorses (13 total, we counted) out of his pot belly. Seahorses mate for life (surprise!) and as they dance at dawn to celebrate their love, they rub bellies and the female slips the male her eggs. Isn't Nature brilliant?
Of course, this past week I shared my story of the wondrous Seahorses. After singing Christmas carols all over Big Sur on Wednesday evening, (and being fed sumptuously by Deetjens Inn afterwards) I confess my new, secret passion: "I want to ride a Seahorse!" I cry out, as I walk beneath the winter stars, good food in my tummy and Cabernet in my bloodstream.
"Oh Linda," replies a friend, "You can't do that. Seahorses live under water!" "I'd hold my breath," I insist. Perhaps I'll hunt down a bottle of Alice's "Drink Me" (in order to make myself the right size for this adventure). Later, my husband assures me that in order for me to join my tiny aquatic friends, there will be a special bit, bridle and scuba gear for me under the Christmas tree.
Photo courtesy of the Monterey Bay Aquarium