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Alien World Right Below

March, 2000

LONG BEACH, Calif. - We look up to the night skies with wonder. We see the stars and imagine galaxies beyond. In our mind's eye, we conjure up the possibility of alien life forms. We envision challenges and promises that the "final frontier" might hold. We are creatures conditioned by Star Trek.

Some of the most fantastical reality is found, however, not by looking up, but just by simply looking downward. I went to the dazzlingly new Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, Calif., last month and discovered the almost surreal world swarming just under the surface of the water. The most incredible life forms have literally been just below us under the water line since the beginning of time.


I saw almost transparent, mushroom-like sea life virtually invisible but for the luminous glow outlining their outer edges. There were tanks teeming with microscopic, needle-like fish, each with a single neon dot but swimming in perfect unison to appear like one large, moving creature made up of a million shimmering polka dots. There was a huge, python-like eel so well camouflaged lazing on the bottom of a sandy aquarium that it became detectable only when it moved. No Star Trek episode had fictional alien life forms more fantastical than the real ones at the Aquarium of the Pacific.

There were more recognizable but nevertheless exotic sea life like the colorful tropical fishes from the south Pacific. Sea horses, I learned, carry their young in pouches until they are old enough to fend for themselves --- just like kangaroos. And sharks lay their leathery eggs, already containing little, wriggling fingerling sharks, among the sea kelps. We saw such an egg on display with a tiny, miniature shark visibly moving in it.


The aquarium itself is a technological marvel. The tank containing fish from north Pacific waters is churning turbulently, replicating the choppy waters of the Alaskan currents. This primeval savagery of the sea is powerfully recreated by unseen sophisticated technology. There is another tank that is the equivalent of a three-story building filled with sharks and other large fish happily plunging down and shooting right up the entire height. The newest addition to the aquarium, a torpedo-like Blunt Nosed Seven-gill shark, was curiously exploring the full loftiness of its new home. I was in awe of the strength of the clear plastic enclosing what must be tremendous pressure from all that water in the gigantic tank.

The Aquarium of the Pacific is nature's science fiction world made possible by the advances in technology. But the sobering message from the day at the aquarium is that the technology that helps display this wondrous sea world so realistically, also threatens this world. Sea life is endangered by improved fishing technology, massive pollution and rapacious oceanic exploitation. The tired irony of our times is that the wonders of nature are placed in jeopardy by the wonders of technology.

As I drove back to Los Angeles with the night sky twinkling down, I realized that we don't have to look up to the sky and wonder about strange alien life forms. We don't have to conjure up fictional challenges. We don't have to imagine some future "final frontier." We have it all, right here, right now, right under us.

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