Featured! Live humans!

09Jul07

It turns out that going to the aquarium is a much more exciting affair when the illusion of untainted nature that is presented is broken radically and repeatedly by the intrusion of human keepers into the scene. During spring vacation I went to the Osaka Aquarium, the Kaiyukan, with my friends Dirk and Nichole, who were out for a visit. It was my third trip to the Kaiyukan, but this time we came during feeding and cleaning time, so we got to watch people through the glass as well as the animals.

The unwritten rule of most aquariums and zoos is, of course, that they want to present the illusion of a natural space by eradicating as many of the traces of human presence as possible. Given that you’re gazing at these animals from within the center of a highly orchestrated human design that has partitioned aesthetic spaces for the contemplative enjoyment of contained nature, this is a fairly hubristic project, but also a remarkably successful one. Somehow the framing device of the tank functions as a kind of ultimate technique for the suspension of disbelief and we bracket off everything outside of the tank to concentrate on the space within.

When there’s a diver actually in the tank itself, however, it’s absolutely impossible to maintain this illusion. In the dolphin tank at the Kaiyukan they just dispense with it entirely, performing a dolphin feeding routine that gets its cues straight from Sea World, though it’s a bit less glitzy. The divers bring their fish pouches and the dolphins right to the edge of the glass so that the onlookers — having been deprived of the precious illusion of untampered nature — can at least look right down the gullet of the dolphin.

The feedings in the penguin tank were a much plainer and workaday affair. The thick uniforms (to keep out the cold) and the utilitarian green of the rubberized overclothes worked in fine conjunction to create a pair of awkward huma-penguins, bending stiffly over their brethren and feeding them fishy snacks. Actually, my friend Richard relates a brilliant story about this particular penguin tank. He and his fiance Michelle arrived just in time to watch a couple of the larger penguins start pecking violently at each other. Whoever was monitoring the tank sent in one of the keepers to split the penguins up, but when the keeper started pushing the penguins apart, the entire tank of penguins turned their attention on the keeper and began attacking until the keeper had to flee, presumably for reinforcements.

My favorite detail in this photograph of the penguin tank is the clipboard stuck to the wall, simultaneously destroying both the illusion of depth in the pen and the horizon itself.

After watching the fish for a good while, I started watching the people too. It’s fascinating how many people come to the aquarium on dates. There’s something about that oceanic feeling I guess. I admit that I too find aquariums romantic (and apparently I’m not the only one). Perhaps it’s all those tentacles and suckers down at the octopus tank.

Of course, the animals at aquariums also end up breaking through the fourth wall when they decide to interact directly with the people staring rudely in at them through the big glass window that defines the limit of their world. Dirk and I had been standing for awhile watching a group of seals circling rapidly through a series of underwater valleys and caverns when we looked up to notice a baby seal hanging down from the top of the tank by its rear flippers and watching us intently. When it noticed that we had noticed it, the baby seal came down to say hello to us. It wasn’t just a perfunctory hello either — the seal was genuinely curious about us and was anxious to make some kind of friendly contact. We put our hands and faces to the tank and the seal mirrored us, pressing its face and flippers to the tank window repeatedly and following our motion as we moved up and down. This went on for about five minutes or so, and it wasn’t until the very end that I remembered to take out my camera and snap a few quick shots. By this time a rather large crowd had gathered in a semi-circle around Dirk and myself to watch us playing with the seal through the glass. The window of what was on display had widened.

One of my favorite tanks at the Kaiyukan is the crab tank. You can watch the crabs spider slowly around the tank here, enacting a kind of underwater ballet while they dig their front claws into the rotten fish that they scavenge and then bring the bits up to their mouths to swallow. It’s a good thing for us watchers that the thick walls of plexi keep the smells locked in as well as the water. I like the fact that you can watch people at the other end of the tank through the windows, their arms moving and pointing at the crabs inside, mirroring the movements of the crabs, but with a difference. The crab tank is also the place where you’re mostly likely to hear someone exclaim “Oishii-so!” (Japanese for “That looks delicious!”) as they gaze into the tank.

The biggest tank at the Kaiyukan holds the resident whale shark, who circles endlessly within the blue world of the three-story tank that sits in the middle of the aquarium, followed by a retinue of fish that shapeshifts like a silver cloud. The tank itself is an amazing feat of construction, and it’s incredible to see an animal as large as the whale shark floating so mildly through space. All the same, I would feel a lot more comfortable if the larger pelagic fishes in aquariums like this were swapped out every year or so. I’m sure this would be tremendously expensive, but there’s something about keeping open-water fish perpetually circling in the same confined space that just seems fundamentally existentially dark.

Of course, unlike the open ocean, tanks needs to be cleaned so that the water doesn’t get cloudy and the windows don’t get covered with algae. Since there’s not a placostamus large enough for a tank of this size, they hire on divers with what look like pool-cleaning vacuums to swim around and suck up the detritus. As Dirk said, “You never think about this kind of job when you think about what kinds of jobs are out there that you might want to do.” Of course, from the outside of the tank it might seem like a cool strange world to be a part of, but something tells me that from inside the wetsuit you probably feel more like a glorified housemaid than an ocean explorer.

You can read my other posts about the Kaiyukan here and here.



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