Of the three exhibits I dive at the Oregon Coast Aquarium, Halibut Flats is the most relaxing. It is more open than Orford Reef, and a little easier on the nerves than Open Sea (the shark tank). Plus, I absolutely love the diversity of fish in this exhibit. The curious and just about blind sturgeon, the funny flounder, the territorial lingcod, the soothing skates, and the many colorful rockfish.
Given how much I’ve enjoyed diving at the aquarium, I’m a little surprised this is the first time I’m writing about it. The last time I dove there, my buddy showed me how to feed the wolf eels. I was awed by their characters, pushy but polite, curious, almost human-like in their interactions with me.
The best part of diving these exhibits is that I am in close contact with marine life. While I’m not allowed to touch the animals, I can still interact with them, and they with me. It is their interactions with me that I find most enjoyable.
This past Friday, while vacuuming the gravel in Halibut Flats, a Starry Flounder settled down next to me. It did this a couple of times as I worked over the gravel. And while it may simply have been interested in any morsels I might dislodge, I had the distinct feeling it was watching me, curious about what I was doing. I have often felt this being around fish and it’s something that surprises and amazes me. Growing up most of us are taught to think of fish as food, or as pretty exhibits in a doctor’s office. Few of us actually get to interact with them in their own environment.
Diving has changed me in so many ways. As I continue to explore this underwater otherworld, I am struck time and time again by the personalities of the life I see. Just like our dogs, cats, horses and other pets, fish have personalities. They watch us, they attempt to interact with us, they play with us. Even before I read The Soul of an Octopus and What a Fish Knows, I knew that fish would not be as “simple” as people often (out of ignorance) made them out to be. Sure enough, they have not yet disappointed. Every time I dive I am struck by the curious interactions I have with these animals, different each time, and with each animal.
Whether or not these creatures are sentient, I enjoy feeling I am being contemplated and puzzled over. Are they trying to understand me as much as I am them? What do they think of me? Can they sense the awe and respect I feel toward them? If land animals can pick up on our intentions and personality (dogs are the best noted example here), I don’t see why fish can’t too.
And, in the simplest way, I just take pleasure in watching a creature that I have seen few times in my life, watch me back.