After a troubling year, let’s lay back for a moment with a photo essay from BoomerCafé’s co-founder and executive editor Greg Dobbs, about a world we rarely see.
I need a break. So do you. A break from politics, a break from the pandemic, a break from the pandemonium of the last few years. So, in the spirit of the opening line from Monty Python’s Flying Circus— “And now for something completely different”— I offer you a piece this holiday week in which the only “p” word is “pictures.” Pictures from a recent trip to California’s peerless Monterey Bay Aquarium.
Like this one, of jellyfish.
To be more specific, “moon” jellyfish. They got their name because they have the look of moonlike bells. Instead of long trailing tentacles like you’ll see on most other jellyfish, these have short ones that sweep their food toward the edge of the bell and that’s where they absorb what they eat, from insect larvae to tiny crustaceans. These translucent jellies grow as large as two feet across.
These less colorful jellies are called sea nettles. Like the moon jellyfish, their bells can pulsate to provide propulsion. Unlike the moon jellies, the sea nettles have long tentacles, all covered with sticky surfaces and stinging cells and when they touch their prey— which includes other jellyfish— they paralyze them and move them to their mouths.
Each of the jellyfish species at the aquarium has its own huge tank. And they use all of it. Some of them move more than a half mile a day, just pulsating up and down, back and forth.
Most species of sharks, on the other hand, swim together in a single tank that’s 80 feet wide, 35 feet deep. They cohabit in 1.2 million gallons of water.
Like this guy. For obvious reasons he’s called a leopard shark, one of the most common along the coast of California. He runs as long as seven feet, but he feeds on a meager-sounding diet of crabs, clams, and other fish. So, nothing to fear… unless you’ve seen Jaws.
Apparently some of the smaller fish haven’t watched it.
Nothing to fear here either… unless you’re squid or shrimp or some other invertebrate, meaning, an animal without a backbone. This shark is called a Pacific spiny dogfish and if you are on its menu, it’ll stun you with sharp, poisonous spines in front of each upper fin. But here’s what’s weird: sardines would be on any shark’s menu, right?
Yes, quite right! But in the very same tank as the sharks, you’ll see this swarm of sardines, 10,000 strong. As it says on the aquarium’s website about the sardines, “Staying together is their way of life.” It’s also their way of survival. Make no mistake, the aquarium keeps the sharks well-fed with their preferred foods so they don’t show much interest in the sardines, but still, swimming in a swarm and constantly shifting direction makes “safety in numbers” the key to their longevity.
You only have to fear this next guy if you have a hard shell because that’s what he feeds on— sea urchins, mollusks, lobsters, crabs. He’s the California sheephead, which can be three feet long.
When he spots his prey, usually clinging to rocks, he has teeth sharp enough and jaws powerful enough to pry them off, crush them, and then with a plate in his throat, grind their shells into pieces small enough to consume. And here’s a fun fact: all sheepheads are born as females, but can develop into males when the gender ratio becomes imbalanced. How do they figure that out? Don’t ask.
Then… also swimming with the sharks… there are the bat rays.
You see how they got their name. Those batlike wings are their fins, and they flap them gracefully to glide through the water, but they also flap them to dig out their prey— they love clams— from the sandy bottoms of the sea.
And who wears the pants in the bat ray’s house? The woman of course. She weighs up to 200 pounds, and has a wingspan of almost six feet. Like many might say about the human species, when it comes to bat rays…
… the males don’t measure up.
When you tour this aquarium, you see faces only a mother could love.
Like this California moray. It’s slim like a snake and pretty much confines itself to small spaces on the sea floor, but that poses a problem: it can’t always open its mouth wide enough to suck in its prey. So when its front jaws take their first swipe at food, a second set of jaws spring forward from farther back and drag the prey down into the moray’s throat.
The China rockfish is another that won’t win any beauty contests. But it might win a reproductive contest. Some female rockfish can produce up to a million eggs at a time, and since they can live to the ripe old age of 75, reproduction’s really no contest at all.
Speaking of faces… what’s this guy so glum about?
And speaking more of faces… where is this guy’s?
He’s a crab, related to Alaskan and California king crabs, but with those sharp spikes sticking out from his body, he doesn’t look nearly as appetizing to predators. That’s why he’s called a spiny king crab. He crawls along the floor of the sea, as deep as almost half a mile, eating anything he can catch, dead or alive. If he looks skinny, maybe it’s because like other crabs, he doesn’t chew his food until it reaches his stomach. That’s where his teeth are.
Now, can you get your arms around this? This red octopus can camouflage itself, instantaneously, to protect against predators. In a fraction of a second it can go from red or reddish brown— its normal colors— to yellow, brown, even white. It can change its skin texture too to match a rocky surface, or sand, if that’s where it’s hiding. In other words, it can sneak around in plain sight. As anyone who has watched My Octopus Teacher knows, the octopus is considered the most intelligent of all invertebrates, maybe as smart as a domestic house cat. And maybe the most wholehearted too: the red octopus has three hearts. One pumps blood through the body, the other two pump it through the gills.
You probably don’t want to get your arms around this: the sea otter. If it looks soft and cuddly, that’s because to swim in the chilly waters where it lives, instead of a thick layer of blubber for insulation, it has the densest fur in the animal kingdom— at its thickest, more than a million hairs per square inch. But it also can be ornery— hey, it’s a member of the weasel family—so you won’t want to jump in the pool and swim alongside.
The African penguin though— there is a whole colony of them at the aquarium— is docile. That might explain how Sir Ernest Shackleton and his 27 shipwrecked explorers survived two years on Antarctica 110 years ago mostly on a diet of penguins. So the penguin is docile, but underwater, using its wings as flippers and its feet as rudders, it’s fast, up to 12 miles per hour, fast enough to chase down schools of anchovies and other small fish. Good thing, that. It eats close to 14% of its body weight every day. That would be like one of us, of average size, eating more than 20 pounds.
All told, there are more than 35,000 animals at this aquarium, more than 550 different species of marine life, almost all of them living— including that massive shark tank— in 2.3 million gallons of water.
As we walked around, we felt safe from whatever dangers any might pose… until we saw a beast that chilled our blood, laboring in a forest of kelp.
Kelp, if you don’t know (as I didn’t), is a form of seaweed and while it has no firm roots in the sea bed, it grows to heights of 175 feet, and feeds and shelters much of the sea life living at its depths. What we spotted might be the only creature that cannot hide within it. But as they say, it takes a village.