The Veracruz Aquarium

The Aquarium Plaza was a new indoor shopping center by the coast. As I stepped through the glass doors, the outdoor tropical haze gave way to a cool, air-conditioned murmur. Tourists foraged around the hodgepodge of souvenir stores and attractions, including a wax museum with a menacing sculpture of the Frankenstein Monster and a theater for marine documentaries. They all converged upon the plaza's tiled lobby, crowned with a spouting fountain crisscrossed over a bronze pod of five breaching dolphins. The aquarium, a one-story extension from the modest shopping center, opened across the lobby. I stepped through its heaving double doors with the same piety that I would take to a temple or pyramid, for an aquarium is just as hallowed to me.

More than natural history museums, faraway planets, or even ancient ruins, the aquarium is the most frequent figure in my dreams. No other setting has been so profoundly impressed upon my subconscious psyche as this microcosm of the world's wondrous marine biodiversity. In my dreams it can range from a simple tank with a few tropical creatures to a titanic multistory mall, its promenade overlooking so vast an open tank that its squiggling sapphire guppies from my height are in fact a pod of whales. Every time I step into an aquarium, I am reentering that fantastic mental space. For each is but a conscious manifestation of my hyperreal dreamworld ... excluding the rowdy kids.

Heavy black curtains swayed to the first path through the aquarium's undulating route: a spacious terrarium replicating the jungle slopes and subtle streams of the Tuxtla Mountains of southern Veracruz, one of Mexico's largest remaining expanses of pristine tropical forest. This was the range surrounding Catemaco, a haven for brujos, diviners, naguales, and other such interesting folk. A central walkway divided the terrarium space, pooled on both sides for soft- and hard-shelled turtles and even an ostentatious caiman, which was splayed upon a surfaced rock. Black keel-billed toucans perched among the ivied cliffs overhead and gossiped through prodigious yellow beaks. A boa constrictor lay coiled within the glass-enclosed hollow of a model tree.

Although most of the galleries exhibited the life of the Gulf Coast, the Tuxtlas' walkway led to a darker chamber with tanks featuring fish from foreign freshwaters. Most formidable of these were the massive, bulbous pacu and the serpentine arapaima, among the world's largest freshwater fish. Artificial stalagmites huddled in the center of the hall, and a flock of plastic bats hung in mid-flight within this model cavern.

The massive circular reef tank encompassed a circular observation chamber and highlighted the aquarium route. I entered through a transparent archway, submerged beneath a watery circuit through which marine turtles, southern stingrays, and even nurse sharks lapped. Spokes of light glistened through the water and cast a daunting silhouette upon the large shark slinking across the arch above. Within the walls around the chamber ran a shallow tank, grounded in beige sands and decorated with artificial corals, among which a hawksbill turtle, groupers, and other creatures rested. I had to sit and pause.

Sharks! I was surrounded by sharks! Their ancient build has scantly changed since before even the first dinosaurs. And why?--Because it is effective. Electrochemical sensors sensitive to blood from a third of a mile away draw the carnivorous, cartilaginous Charcharodon to hunt, its robust tail propelling it up to twenty-five knots through ocean waters. A dislocating jaw plunges rows of serrated, double-edged daggers into skin, sinew, and skeleton. The shark is one of the planet's oldest and most efficient predators for its senses, speed, and strength. Within these qualities must be the reason why I dream so often of this devourer.

I rose and held my hand to the transparent wall by the arch. Shark, are you a spirit guide to recur so often in my visions? If you would be such a guide, lend me your strength for this trying time. May your puissance touch me through wash and window. The shark embodied the awesome and trembling mystery of the sea.

More life from the reefs comprised the gallery following the circular chamber. Diminutive bamboo sharks darted among canary butterfly fish and such aesthetic oddities as the marbled clown triggerfish and the silvery unicorn tang. In a tall panel two bulbous porcupine fish skulked among artificial crags, shying from full exposure despite their defensive ability to swell into thorny globes--or their lethal levels of tetrodotoxin, one of Earth's strongest biological venoms. Serpentine green and mottled eagle morays peered pensively from dark recesses about the edges of their reef of artificial coral. The ocean was the stage for multiple, often interlocking, paths of evolution, beginning from those first steps two billion years ago. The aquarium reminds us that Homo sapiens is but one eccentricity among these many.

I exited the indoor galleries and returned to the blinding sunlight of the early afternoon. The aquarium displays, however, had not yet finished. As I was approaching the last stretch before the gift shop, I followed a snaking path whose side wall, defining an open tank sculpted from artificial stone, held a monolithic window.

Six gray, leathery manatees paddled and rolled across the span of the tank. Manatee! Gentle, vegetarian, docile: they evoked the antithesis of the devastating shark from the circular tank. They were elephantine puppies with bulky flippers, a fused tail paddle, and an appetite for algae. I had never seen so many. Their spins and sweeps held me to the window as I immersed myself in their aquatic ballet. The beasts' slow, graceful curves around the tank brought certain serenity to that moment, enhanced by the mellow embrace of the tropical sun and the placid swash of the gulf waters upon the shoals just beyond the outdoor path. I had peace. I was invigorated. Thank you.