Yeah, I’ve gone overboard (pun intended) on the whole shark thang, but I’ve recently gone eyeball to eyeball with an even freakier ocean denizen. Seriously, this abnormality has given me nightmares in recent weeks.
After living in Cali nearly 10 years (well past my personal deadline), I finally made the trek to the world-renowned Monterey Bay Aquarium. At last count, I’ve been to more than 10 aquariums around the globe (including my all-time fave, the Ring of Fire Aquarium in Osaka, which had a whale shark when I visited), and Monterey promised to deliver more splash than any I’d previously visited. Unfortunately, my visit came after the release of the aquarium’s most recently captive great white, but I was still lured by the promise of a state-of-the-art institution that refiltered saltwater from the neighboring bay.
Because I got a late start out of Marin County, I had about an hour to view all the exhibits, so I made sure to devote the bulk of my time to the Outer Bay, which boasts a million gallons of free-floating marine amusement behind 13 inches of acrylic window space. Sure, the hammerheads and turtles were mesmerizing, but it was the ocean sunfish — the first I’d ever viewed in real life* — that startled me to the point of transfixion.
These creatures never should have made it this far through evolution. Their poorly designed, flattened bodies are so hydrodynamically inept that they seem to drift helplessly with the current more so than any oceanic invertebrate (See: jellies). As young’uns, they appear normal enough, with the requisite fins and gills in all the right places, but once they get bigger, Mola mola takes on a grotesque form normally reserved for burn victims. Its tail takes on cauliflower characteristics, to the point of serving little purpose. Its “facial” features seem almost amorphous, with only a small orifice for a mouth. And its dorsal and anal fins seem ineffective when the current assumes strengths stronger than that of a bath tap.
I lingered at the Outer Bay exhibit longer than usual solely because of the two ocean sunfish specimens (six and ten feet tall, by the docent’s estimates; Wikipedia has a good shot of their freakish size). Through the blue-gray gloom, one made its way towards the window at an awkward angle, as if emulating some inanimate piece of flotsam, until it was only feet away. Its eye looked cartoonish, as if it had been dreamed up by some freebaser in the basement of Henson Creature Studios, a sliced ping-pong ball granted the wish of orbital movement. It was ghastly, ghostly, too much for me to handle, and I backed away into the crowd until I was safely behind the docent and a marauding band of Japanese tourists.
The hammerheads continued to circle the tank. My pals, the sea turtles, flitted by and high-fived me with their flippers after each circuit. The 300-pound tuna — confined to below-average temperatures due to their need to breed at NASCAR speeds when the mercury rises to the mid-70s — lapped the tank as if making for the next Guinness record. But they all sped by in comparison to the sunfish, who, like some gelatinous monster from a ’50s horror flick, glided amiably by as if they had all the time in the world. If the meek shall indeed inherit the Earth, then the sunfish is going to be signing your timesheets come the next stock plunge. Stick me in a tank with carnivorous sharks any day. I’m certain these freakazoids would gum you to death, if given the chance.
Oh, and if you get the chance when in Monterey, stop by For Garlic Lovers in the nearby arcade. Decadent halitosis-inducing edibles await.
(* I’ve since remembered that I saw a sunfish at the Coney Island Aquarium when I was about seven years old and was so freaked out that I wouldn’t go further into the exhibit and instead waited outside in the cold. Yes, they are the stuff nightmares are made of.)