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Marine marvels

Manjula Padmanabhan | Updated on January 12, 2018 Published on December 02, 2016

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Last week, when I and Bins were in Baltimore, the one expedition we made outside my cousins' home was a visit to the National Aquarium. It was absolutely fabulous. For the four hours we were there I forgot all about the monster-cold that I'd had all through the weekend.

We were with Delhi friends who had shifted, with their two young sons, to Washington. The nine-year-old opted to come along with us: he's been twice already and cannot get enough of the place. He and Bins immediately bonded. They walked around arm in arm a few feet ahead of us. We stopped first in the jellyfish room. It was in semi-darkness with display-cases and glass cylinders lit from within. Coloured living disks floated, dreamlike and beautiful, trailing tangled skeins of poisonous tentacles. Caught within the tentacles are their prey.

"Jellies are amongst the few life-forms whose numbers are multiplying as a result of oxygen-depletion in the ocean," says Bins, reading aloud from the information card. "Their poisonous stings can be life-threatening to humans and they're extremely successful predators – yet they have no brains!" "They sound a lot like politicians," I say, with a sour smile.

Next we visit the dolphins. I've never seen a live display before. We're looking up at them through the clear glass of the lower-level viewing tank. Eight feet in length, they move with silken grace. There are three mature females in this tank, tossing rubber toys back and forth. Later, in the upper level show, their trainers tell us that each individual has identifying marks and scratches. Marine mammals are no longer forced to work long hours entertaining humans. Instead they are invited to show off their skills to a cheering, adoring audience. At the end of the 15 minute show, one dolphin pops her head over the edge of the tank, posing for a photograph just like a friendly little girl. It's impossible not to love the creatures.

There's so much to see! And such an incredible variety of life-forms. As it's a Saturday, the number of visitors has been gradually increasing. A broad ramp winds alongside a continuous cylindrical display which permits large specimens to whizz around at great speed. There are sharks and rays, pufferfish and "Finding Nemo" clownfish. In one area there's a marine equivalent of a petting zoo where friendly attendants help visitors to very gently touch some of the smaller-sized denizens. I petted some moon jellyfish and a young stingray that kept leaping up the sides of tank, yearning to be tickled!

For me, the star of the show was the giant Pacific octopus. I'd read about this species in a wonderful book called The Soul Of An Octopus, so it was like meeting a celebrity. This one's name is Tallulah. She's plastered onto the front of her display case, held there by her powerful pale pink suction-disks. Her eyes are closed and from the rhythmic movements of her bulbous head it's clear that she's fast asleep! Even Bins is smitten. "What a sweetie," he whispers, "and pink! So ladylike!" Tallulah's tentacles ripple delicately as we tiptoe away, not wishing to wake her from her alien dreams.

Manjula Padmanabhan author and artist, writes of her life in the fictional town of Elsewhere, US, in this weekly column

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Published on December 02, 2016
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