A Visit to The Birch Aquarium

Kathie Gibboney

With a much-anticipated vacation looming closely ahead, part of me was already on it.  I wasn’t the least bit interested in the day-to-day doings and responsibilities of my regular life, i.e., obligations, appointments, work, driving, eating. Oh, I’d show up, but I just wasn’t there, I couldn’t taste the food, didn’t even care if the wine was red or white, or notice the Topanga stars. I was somewhere else, in a beach town further south under different stars. 

Then something caught my attention. I listened with great interest to a radio announcement about a new installation of Seahorses and Sea Dragons opening at The Birch Aquarium in La Jolla.

Oh, the exotic romance of it! Not just of historic La Jolla, where Doc in Steinbeck’s novel Cannery Row goes to gather octopi but also the fairytale enchantment of seahorses, those magical creatures on which water sprites and mermaids ride. Seahorses with their winding tails, equine-shaped heads and little pouches. Seahorses, which I had once, many years ago, given to my mother, who loved them, as a present for her seventieth birthday. La Jolla wasn’t far from where our beach house would be. We were going!

The Birch Aquarium is part of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego. The original aquarium was created in 1905, founded by a Berkeley Zoologist, William E. Ritter; a newspaper tycoon, E.W. Scripps; philanthropist Ellen Browning Scripps; and physician Fred Baker. This admirable team, in their joint largesse, were committed to communicating and sharing scientific findings with the public and pledged in the institution’s bylaws to always maintain such a facility. Thankfully they’ve succeeded.

One hundred and fourteen years later, on a hot Monday afternoon we, along with my brother’s family, left our beach house, traveled just up the coast on a vacation outing to the current site of the visionary founders’ fantastic dream. Dreamlike it was, a liquid flowing dream.  Entering the Aquarium from the heat of the summer day into the large open structure, with the sparkling Pacific visible outside, was like crossing into another realm. Silver sardines, shining in their circular tank, welcome visitors to the great Hall of Fishes. The exhibits are magnificent windows into the undersea world and the softly darkened lighting accentuates the jewel-like creatures swimming, floating, crawling through their water world. To stand in front of the large, twenty-foot tall habitats is mesmerizing. The giant kelp sways and amongst it swim rainbow-colored denizens, large and small, from the Giant Sea Bass to the tiny transparent, fairy shrimp.

There on view is a different world, yet part of our own. Walking through the displays of aquatic life is completely transporting and it doesn’t take long to feel sort of dizzy, as if somehow hypnotized by the pulsating movement of the moon jellyfish and the graceful glide of the octopus. Just when one is lulled into the peaceful state of tranquility imagining how wonderful it would be to be part of that ecosphere, suddenly the ugly head of the Wolf Eel pops out to startle one from reverie and back to that heavy, gravitational, terrestrial condition. It is a little sad to have to stand rooted to the ground, while all around you floats free with a lightness we lost when we first crawled out of the primordial sea, all those millions of years ago. 

In our clumsy human forms, we clump off to see the seahorses. The installation opened just this year and its centerpiece, designed to create an ideal breeding environment for sea dragons, is one of the largest in the world. 

The Leafy sea dragon is of a miraculous design. It really looks like a plant, with its leaves waving in the water, but if you look closer you see it is actually a seahorse dressed up in an elaborate, fantastical costume, worthy of winning first place. Its cousin, the Weedy sea dragon is also remarkable in that it truly resembles a miniature dragon with dazzling colored scales, flying like something from a storybook, through the sea.

At last I stand in front of them, a herd of simple seahorses, of the genus, hippocampus; ‘hippo’ for   horse, and ‘campus’ for monster. Yes, they are monstrously enduring and come in different sizes and colors. It is hard to choose a favorite. Some propel themselves around quickly flicking the fin mounted on their back and others lazily drift with the current, their tail wrapped loosely around a seaweed anchor. Each is charming and seeing them, healthy and seemingly happy in this safe and beautiful environment is somehow, as with a really cute cat video, good for the soul. Watching them with wonderment, I sense for a moment, my mother at my side.

The Aquarium is an active, and committed educational facility, and there were numerous interactive displays, scientific information, warnings, and photos addressing climate change and its development over the years. The Birch Scripps team charts and studies the powerful impact of careless human behavior on the delicate balance of our planet, affecting our seas and the creatures who live there. Part of their mission is promoting, practicing, and offering education about conservation. They work to help save threatened species, preserve ocean habitats encroached upon by pollution and disappearing entirely due to vanishing coral reefs and toxic algae caused by ever warming waters. Thankfully, the aquarium, with its rigorous efforts to conserve seahorses and sea dragons through breeding and raising programs, will assure that these animals won’t disappear and sadly fade into the land of myths and legends.

In the open sea, the creatures face a more uncertain future. Renowned underwater photographer, Justin Hoffman, has captured the precarious situation perfectly. While taking photos in Indonesian waters, he followed a little seahorse. The creature moved from wrapping its tail around a plant, and then clung on to some plastic debris, finally attaching itself to a discarded Q-tip that flowed in with the tide. The image of seeing the delicate seahorse in its natural environment affixed innocently to a piece of trash, is a telling allegory for the current and future state of our oceans.

Mr. Hoffman, commenting on the simple but strikingly powerful photo, says, “I wish it didn’t exist.”

Outside the Aquarium is the intriguing Tide Pool Plaza where guests can view and touch a variety of intertidal inhabitants such as sea stars, anemones, crabs, and lobsters. Just beyond the tide pools, below the cliff is the great Pacific Ocean. The view is expansive, spectacular and brilliant in the La Jolla sunshine. Looking out over the water inspires thoughts of all the teaming life beneath the surface. All the animals great and small that are part of it—fish and turtles and sharks and dolphins, slimy sea slugs, manatees, color-changing octopi, gliding stingrays, giant squid, the mighty whales, and dear, delightful seahorses. Each is connected to each other and to us, we who must work to assure they will abide.

While viewing the myriad of marine life on display I wondered what they thought as they swam in their habitats seemingly oblivious to us who stood observing them with rapt amazement.

All, except one: a large crab on the bottom of the tank rears up and, standing, looks at my brother and me. He waves his crabby claws, while moving his mouth as if trying to get our attention and he succeeds. Is he happy to see us and saying hello? Is he frightened and assuming a defensive pose? I am not sure, but there is something so insistent and pleading in his urgency, that at last I understand.  He is simply saying, “Save us.”


Kathie Gibboney

It has been said that Kathie Gibboney invented the Unicorn, which she neither admits nor denies, as it might reveal her true age. Kathie is an essayist, reporter, and poet for MMN with her column, "My Corner of The Canyon." She lives happily in a now-empty nest in Topanga, CA with The Beleaguered Husband and a marmalade cat.

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