I Like Otters

I first went to the Monterey Bay Aquarium in the summer of 1993 when I was on my high school graduation trip to California with My Friend Amy. We’d seen a video of it somewhere, I think, and decided to spend a day there. It was the first time I’d been to a real aquarium (the one near my house doesn’t count; it’s where Flipper came from, if that gives you any idea). I was really excited by the jellyfish and the touch tanks and the kelp forest and everything they had there, but especially the otters. I think Amy and I spent a good couple of hours in front of that tank, watching the otters swim and swim and dive and dive, and roll around and wash their faces and just be cute as the dickens.

This was actually a wild otter.

I thought this was the greatest thing I’d ever seen, and when I got back home from the trip I told everyone all about the otters. We don’t have those in South Florida. Manatees, yes. Alligators, yes. Otters, sadly, no. Later that summer I went to the Dominican Republic on a mission trip with my high school youth group and was regaling everyone with my Otter Experience! and this guy John looked up from the end of the table where he was ignoring everything everyone was saying sitting and said with the straightest face and most serious voice “I like otters!” Hilarity ensued…I’m not exactly sure why, because really, no one doesn’t like otters, right? I think it’s just because he was being totally silent and his contribution to the conversation was I Like Otters.

I went away to college and I Like Otters became something I said to signify “Random Thought Here.” I even did some research on otters and learned that they are very kinky sexually (they’re into bondage and scarification) and that they’re quite a bit of trouble for the aquarium to keep. They used to keep rocks in the bottom of the tank, thinking that the otters might like to pick them up and use them to crack open clams and things, as they do in the wild. The otters, apparently, did like that, but not as much as they liked banging the rocks on the glass walls of their tanks, thereby scratching them up and freaking out the tourists a little. I also learned that they are very bonded to their keeper, and hate strange humans. An underwater photographer went in their tank once to shoot a documentary and apparently they punctured his dry suit and cracked his mask. Not to be trifled with, these otters. I became quite the repository of non-technical otter facts for a while. This was also the year I was obsessed…I mean, obsessed\…with two-toed sloths, but that’s a different story.

I got to go to the Monterey Bay Aquarium once more in the intervening years, when I was traveling for an old job and had a day off. This was about four years ago. Today I got to go again and let me just tell you, it was the greatest thing I’ve done in a while.

I’m down here visiting my friends who live in the Alpine Butterfly Lodge, the good folks who throw this party every year. In fact I am writing this in the back of a van owned by Rob and My Friend Anna, Rob being so gracious as to not only grace Carl and I with his presence but to drive us there and back as well. Their van doesn’t have any back seats but has instead a big golden couch, and I’m sitting on it trying not to get carsick and remember everything I did today. I’m all about the field entries lately. Happily, I didn’t go so far as to actually bring the laptop with me into the aquarium, and since Carl and Rob are sitting in the front seats discussing math or something, they’re not likely to ask me impertinent questions while I type. Oh wait, they’re talking about Iraq. Hmm. Are you going to think I’m shallow if I just go on and talk about all the cool stuff I saw today, if I promise you that I’m thinking about the war a lot and being horrified by the state of the world right now? And if I promise you that I’ve been writing letters to my senators and listening to NPR coverage and having very unhappy conversations about it? Thanks. I promise you I’ll think about it some more, okay? After I finish writing this?So, the aquarium. Yes, I definitely looked at the otters, and I thought they were cute, and I still like them. I just found a lot of other things more interesting, you know? Because, essentially, otters are just very wet and very agile dogs. Kinky sex fish-eating dogs with purple teeth (from sea urchins!), but dogs nonetheless. I’m not really a dog person, in the end. I am, however, very much an octopus person…I watched a really big one for about thirty minutes and got to see it wake up and change colors (from white to orange). Twice! Some awed little kid said “This is better than TV!” I couldn’t have agreed more. I’m a spider crab and comb jelly and decorator crab person as well, as it turns out.

And a sea nettle person. This is probably my favorite picture ever taken.

Definitely a fan of all types of echinoderms…I got to pet not only a sea urchin (but not a purple one) but a very nice and bright orange sea cucumber. I checked out a deep-sea dwelling ratfish and a huge crazy tank of huge crazy tuna, which also included a not very big not very crazy mola, unlike the one I saw the last time I was there, which was easily the size of a VW Beetle. I saw several sharks and some eels, lots and lots of jellyfish, some freaky yet very cool tunicates (which are essentially big mouths with stalks attached) and some weird sea dragons, who surely have taken the art of camoflage to its pinnacle.

, unlike the one I saw the last time I was there, which was easily the size of a VW Beetle. I saw several sharks and some eels, lots and lots of jellyfish, some freaky yet very cool tunicates (which are essentially big mouths with stalks attached) and some weird sea dragons, who surely have taken the art of camoflage to its pinnacle.
It’s pretty easy to see here, actually, but you have to imagine it in a patch of seaweed

There were lots of HUGE seastars and…hey, we are passing through Castroville, “the Artichoke Capital of the World.” I sense this is a place where I could be very happy from a culinary standpoint. Artichokes. Yum. I’m really hungry. We had lunch by a big window in the aquarium cafe and I looked out and saw a harbor seal, swimming around. Rob and Carl both told stories about times they’ve been swimming with dolphins. A Florida native, and have I ever swum with dolphins? No. I am very jealous. One of the things I like very much about this aquarium, though, as opposed to the one in Seattle (and a couple of others I can think of) is that the otters are the only marine mammals they have there. I hate whales and seals and things like that in tanks. The otters seem really playful and happy (if otters can be said to be happy, and I’ll assume they can) and also they were rescued and have grown up there so it’s not like they were captured. That’s what I tell myself.

I noticed that most of the things I got really excited about were invertebrates.

Sea pen!

We went to a program about the Monterey Canyon, which is this crazy deep trench pretty much directly offshore, and the very cool and funny woman giving the talk told us all about giant squids, which no one has ever seen but people are pretty sure exist, and the longest creature in the world (a siphonophore, which is about a broomstick in diameter but 130 feet long). She asked the audience what we thought was the longest thing, and I said salp, which was not right but wasn’t too far off (one species can be up to sixty feet. Sixty feet of glow in the dark goo with stinging tentacles, how great is that?). I really enjoyed thinking about all the different ways there are to be alive, does that make sense? You don’t have to have a brain and arms and legs and eyes to get the job done. You can have eight or ten arms, or a hard shell and a stomach, or lots of tube feet and spines, or just a lot of goo. It’s all good.

Sometimes I like to imagine that all the creatures in the tanks are looking out at all the strange humans in all their different shapes and sizes. I think there is a scene in Mary Poppins (the book), where they all go to the zoo and the animals watch Person Feeding Time. That would be so cool. I imagine the otters pointing out particularly strange human specimens to each other…”Ooh, look, that one has a mullet!” “Throw yourself against the wall of the tank, that scares them!” “Look at that one over there, with the pigtails! Let’s see if we can get her to jump in and swim with us!

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