I haven’t been to the aquarium in ages so I was delighted when one of my beloved patrons suggested a trip as a way to spend some time between the bedroom and the dinner table.

I have mixed feelings about animals in captivity. On the one hand, the Seattle Aquarium works almost exclusively with rehabilitated animals or those born in captivity, particularly birds and mammals. Their salmon hatchery is small but educational, and they only keep their octopuses for a few months before returning them to the wild.

On the other, the Dolphinarium in Puerto Aventuras had a fully grown sea lion in an enclosure smaller than my apartment. And if you didn’t otherwise need to be convinced that keeping charismatic mega fauna is inherently inhumane, you must have missed the nation’s collective  binge watch of Tiger King.*

But an aquarium is populated largely by invertebrates and otherwise relatively low needs creatures. Their internal worlds, as far as we can tell, are small and so it seems so much less cruel to keep them in (well maintained) tanks. In fact, it seems quite the opposite. In a world full of predators, offering simple prey animals a sanctuary, and feeding predators relatively easy meals, is kind of like offering them an early retirement.

While I did enjoy the afternoon (it turned into a gorgeous day and the outdoor sections became a pleasure to linger in), I felt a snag or two, watching the fur seals and the river otters doing laps, bored off their cute furry asses. I know they wouldn’t survive in the wild, being either rescued or captive bred, and that helps me feel better. It also helps that the staff are dedicated not just to the physical health of the animals, but also to offering them enrichment and amusement, just like we do with our pets at home.

But no amount of sea otters feeding and harbor seals hamming for the tourists** kept me from returning to my favorite exhibit.

The Cuttlefish

Cuttle fish are not fish, they are cephalopods, related to Octopuses and squids. And they. Are. Awesome.

Seattle Aquarium has seven (that I found.) There are two near the seahorses, down low where the little uns can see them, and they are the more colorful ones. Their resting mantle colors are vivid blues and purples and yellows, but they change them at the drop of a hat. They can also change the texture of their skin, smoothing out or projecting spikes to blend in and hide or stand out and threaten.

Though the vivid ones were pretty, they’r tucked into a small corner, and the two were in neighboring tanks, unable to interact with one another.

Moving to the next room, we found a tank with five all together, and at adult eye level. This species is called Sepia bandensis and has a far less vibrant mantle. And their inter… cuttle-al? interpersonal interactions were SO COOL to watch. They mostly hang out under their little rocks, blending in so perfectly that at first I only counted three. While we watched, they came out and slowly, glacially, had a little tiff.

I think it was two males and a female, because one stayed low to the ground, her skin color and texture changing so slowly I almost didn’t notice it, while the other two jockeyed for proximity. They flashed from white to so purple they were almost black, spikes jutting from their skin and then smoothing out. The one in the middle showed his angry black top side to his rival as his underside, the side facing the female, was a reassuring white. As they moved around each other, like a sitcom rendered in silent ballet, their colors strobed, flashed, bled from one to the next, telegraphing meaning in an instant.

The subtleties of color and the speed with which they changed it, slow sometimes, when adjusting camouflage, lighting fast when telling someone else to piss off, are myriad. The color changes are controlled by a special type of cell that (called a chromatophore) they have instant and total mastery of starting at birth. Well, hatching. They come from lil eggs. They’re so cute!!

And how cute are they, anyway!?! Their eyes are at the transition point between their fat, oval little bodies and their short tentacles. Depending on which way they’re approaching you, they might look like they have an enormous fat nose and a teeny tiny little body, or they might look like they have a big round belly while their face is long and skinny. When their tentacles are all together, it looks like a long nose and a slightly disapproving face, but when they open their tentacles for whatever reason, they suddenly become a chibi Cthulhu, their small stature preventing any real scare factor from their tentacle ringed maw. Their motile fin is incredibly thin and encircles their bodies, a gossamer fluttering tutu.

And the best part? When they’re near the ocean floor, they take their bottom two tentacles and use them like little leggies! They’re buoyant, so the legs walk in a kind of astronaut slo mo effect as they wander to and fro.

At the end of our leisurely walking tour, after cruising the mammal tanks and swimming with the whales in virtual reality, we had enough time to revisit one exhibit and I chose cuttlefish.

The love triangle seemed to have cooled off for now and all five little smushy water dirigibles hid in their rocks, indistinguishable from their surroundings.

I don’t know which one it was. Maybe it was the female (I didn’t read until later that you can count their tentacles to discern male from female), maybe it was one of the observers to the delicate dance battle. No matter, one of them broke away from her stony hiding place and slowly, slowly approached the glass. She moved to the opposite side of the window, her little tenticlegs cautiously bringing her my direction. Finally, she settled across from me, mere centimeters of glass separating our noses, and we watched each other.

It’s almost impossible to know, and definitely to remember, what her mantle told me. She was in full camouflage, instinctively hiding her soft, tiny body from potential predators. He skin was mottled cream and brown and almost black, protrusions breaking up her silhouette, blending her into the gravel. And yet, she made small, subtle changes, strobing soft stripes that moved from head to toe, or from eye to forehead? It’s hard to tell what the equivalent would be. Her spikes sometimes softened at the tips, just a bit.

For a moment, nothing moved and no one else existed. I looked directly into her W shaped eye and wondered if she was thinking what I was thinking. What is this creature? This mute, bizarrely sized, caged creature. Did she know she was the one behind bars and not me? Was she wondering if I knew that I am me? Was she observing me, wondering about me, just as I was? And did she have the better life? Ostensibly free of stress, free of wondering about higher meanings or your impact on the planet, well fed and housed with stimulating neighbors, was she happier than me? Was I on the wrong side of the glass?

It’s a hard concept to accord any weight, later, over steaks and wine and gratuitous desserts. Cuttlefish don’t have orgasms, as far as we know, and their tongues are not for tasting, or for pleasure. Their lives are short and fraught, ruled by instincts and unable to know the wider world.

But it’s no harm to wonder, in both senses of the word. To wonder at my assumptions and ask questions of the world, and to wonder at this world of light and color and diversity and pain and majesty.

My thanks are often general, addressed to the many, many people who have helped me craft my life as it is, as I like it. But today I have the privilege of thanking one person. The wondrous gent who shared my joy, watching her watching me watching her, who conjured for me a day at the aquarium without knowing just how perfect it would be.

Thank you.

*To be fair, I missed it, too, but Didn’t miss the messaging.

**The river otters and the fur seals may have seemed kind of bored, but the harbor seals sure looked a lot like they were having fun interacting with visitors. They’d bump up against the glass right in front of someone, or boop face first into it at low speed. They played with each other, and took care to rest where people could see them clearly. Also they are one hundred percent adorable, and they’re a pretty sedentary species anyway.