I wake to the cheerful stabbing of 1960’s robot sounds from the alarm on my phone that reminds me of Ed. I feel that amused panic of not remembering where I am for a second, so I just sit and wait for the pieces to assemble. Not my house. Not my bed. Wetsuit. Coffee. Got it. Time to release the skate.
I’m housesitting for my boss Peter from the small aquarium where I work. I have been holding down the fort, taking care of his pets as well as the exhibit animals while he’s on vacation. I leave his house with my coffee, wearing the farmer John piece of my dive suit and a t-shirt. I’ve decided to carry out today’s vaguely conceived plan early, before the world wakes.
I say it often, and here again; the ocean is not a nice place. Choosing aquarium animals to display together is primarily governed by which ones are least likely to eat each other. An artful aquarist may choose a variety of animals to represent a whole ecosystem display, such as a kelp forest, or a rocky reef. Visitors see a lovely tableau of happy and sometimes obese organisms living together, in what appears to be the benign interactions of an ecology textbook with all the dark and smutty pages torn out. On a practical level, one has to choose species to display which maintain this illusion and provide some sort of educational opportunity to the viewer. While humans are geared toward reveling in the gore of an aquatic battle-royale, it would be counterproductive for teaching ocean conservation.
The Sandy Seafloor exhibit in our aquarium shows visitors that one can find a variety of life everywhere in the ocean; even in the sandy bottom where there appears to be nothing but dirt. Most of the organisms that live there are well camouflaged by patterns on their body, by burying themselves, or by a flattened profile, such as sanddabs, flounders, skates, rays, and the dear-to-my-heart armored sand star. * Over a couple of months, it appeared more and more that there really was nothing living in our staged environment. A couple of bite-marks on the round-rays, and a few sanddabs later; it was time to separate the culprit. We have a male California Skate (Raja inornata) who had been biting at his tank-mates in our Sandy Seafloor exhibit. A flattened cousin of sharks; skates are like a diamond-shaped stingray without the stinger. Peter decided to send him to his room for not playing well with others, and moved him to an isolated pool in another building.
Skate solitary confinement consists of a five-foot round, blue plastic tub. It is plumbed with running seawater and covered with mesh to prevent anything from jumping out and getting stranded on the floor overnight. While Peter was away, I noticed that the skate was showing red marks on his snout from bumping into the sides of the tank. He continued to knock his rostrum over the next couple of days, and his abrasions began to grow. They hadn’t developed into an open sore, but it was only a matter of time. Once a skate develops open wounds, it is highly vulnerable to infection. The wounds can be treated with medication, but I had no space in another tank to move him where he would not continue his behavior, and simply make it worse. After medication is used, we would not be allowed to release him. It’s rare to release an aquarium animal. Taking care of animals that an aquarium already has in its collection is much less invasive and costly than acquiring new animals from the wild. Fish medicine is still more of an art than well-defined science. I don’t have Peter’s knack for catching and deporting animals back from death’s conflicted border before it’s their time to cross. Peter won’t be home for another week and a half, and I’m afraid that the skate will begin to develop an open wound and need to begin medication before then. I decide that releasing our skate will give him his best shot at a longer life. With the greatest intentions and no tangible plan, I drive to work in my aging Jetta, wearing a wetsuit and pounding coffee.
There is a room at work where animals are kept that we do not have on display for the public. Some animals are taking much-needed breaks from being lovingly mangled by children’s hands in our touch-pools, some are cultured and reared in this building, and still others are simply in our collection without a forum to display them to our visitors. At head-level is a complicated web of air tubing cobbled together with various manifolds, splicing, and black electrical tape. Like the human lymph system to its counterpart blood vessels, a network of garden hoses crisscrosses the room’s headspace carrying the life-sustaining water to each tank. The echoes in the room bombard me with the steady thrum of running seawater. The tangy smell of clean salt air and fresh algae digs into my senses. Rust stands out as a haughty reminder that salt water makes short work of anything metal. My foot slides a small arc of water from the wet floor into the outflow trough, and over the lone green anemone who has made its home there after a dashing escape from its tank years earlier. More than any other room at work, this one drives home the fact that this is a working marine laboratory. I rummage through the racks of old containers and coolers for something wide enough to carry the skate. The only option I find that will fit the fins that make up his wingspan, is a shallow Rubbermaid container a couple of feet long, but only a few inches deep. There is no lid.
I decide I want extra protection and something to cover the skate’s eyes, so that the light outside doesn’t bother or scare him. I slowly draw a black plastic garbage bag around his body underwater in the quarantine tub that has been his room. I dunk the Rubbermaid tub beneath him and lift him out. Just like that, his life is in my hands, heavy with the weight of the water that allows him to breathe. With an anxious burning in my chest, I carry him into the front seat of my waiting Jetta and place his tub on the towels I have prepared. Then we’re off.
We only have about a mile to drive before we reach the small cove where I planned to let him go. He flaps his wings a little in his plastic shroud, splashing seawater onto the upholstery of my car to join the salt stains from previous post-ocean antics. I place my right hand on him to steady his body. Excited, I push in the clutch and quickly realize I’m going to have to be tricky to get anywhere. Right hand on the skate; left foot on the clutch; brace the steering wheel with my knee; gas; left hand lets go of the steering wheel, hurriedly shifting the car; and off we go. It is slow going. Somehow I manage to avoid spilling too much more seawater. Brace, clutch, gas, shift with wrong hand, and don’t let go of the skate. The skate quiets down as if sensing that I could easily kill us both with a fiery plunge into the early number 20 city bus. Minutes later, we’ve arrived at our destination without needing the water from his shallow tank to put out the flames of our wreck. My thick wetsuit is overheating me in my excitement. For some reason the furnace in my chest grows with the anticipation of letting my charge go free.
My biceps smolder as I schlep his heavy tub down the long concrete stairs to the beach. I trudge through the rack kelp that is always piled high here, and finally plunge my overheated body into the ocean like tempering hot iron. The water is unusually flat and still. I stand there for a minute with the skate’s container floating motionless on the surface beside me as the cold water seeps into my blazing suit. It’s chilling as always for a split second, before the thin layer of water between my suit and skin adjusts to cozy warmth. I am comfortable again, but I can’t shake the small anxiety in my core. The skate flaps once in his tub. I revel in the fact that wearing a wetsuit in the ocean is one of the few times that it is socially acceptable to pee on oneself in public. The sun has just crested the small mountains to the east. The water is crystal clear. I watch small puffs of sand beneath my booties as the skate and I wade into chest-high water. I sink his container and pull it away to the surface. When I slip his bag free he just hangs there motionless, a couple of feet above the bottom. The ache welling up in my chest threatens to pound my sternum to shreds. He makes one tentative flap of his wings and stops. The sun makes the angry red marks on his rostrum stand out against the metallic bronze of his retina. He looks back at me for a few seconds. We just stand there for a tiny eternity looking each other in the eye. He turns away slightly. Slowly, calmly, he coasts to the seafloor and away. I watch him through the clear morning waters until the sun’s glare burnishes his motions from my sight. I wait. I try to comprehend the profound excitement and loss that I am feeling, and realize that I am jealous of him for the freedom he has gained. He now has to find his own meals. He has to avoid becoming a meal himself. He has to hide; maybe even fight. He’s free to take in all of the sights and terrors the ocean has to offer him. I am trapped here by the air. I imagine him travelling off into the romance and the darkness. Nostalgia for the scents and fears of a life I cannot experience hammers away in my breast. The skate is gone and I cannot follow. It is quiet. I mutter well wishes to him in his absence. The faint rippling of my own wake is the only sound in the world as I drag the empty container and bag to the edge of the pond-still cove.
Sometimes when I sit on the cliffs above that little cove, I imagine slipping into the calm waters and sliding ever down to see what secrets the ocean has to show me. I ignore ecstatic dogs on the beach, evade the dolphin’s malicious grins, and let my mind putter around in the depths like a well-informed tourist. I parade past the variety show of freaks and miracles that I now know tick on in their intricate roles. I revel slightly in what I have learned about life in the depths in the time since I released that animal. I run through the repertoire of who eats whom, of nutrient cycles, of the massive drifting infancies of most of the oceans life, and how the interplay of it all drives our planet. My thoughts inevitably brush up against the darkness and the unknown. If I have taken all of this understanding to heart in the short time since that day, what else is there to know? What else is there that no one knows? And there, just behind my throat and sternum, is that burning little ache for fear and wonders I will never experience first-hand. I pry at the limits of my understanding. I scratch at the next thing I realize I haven’t yet learned, and I commit to absorbing it when I leave here. I will go back to my life soon and I will pass on what I learn.
It is quiet. I mutter well wishes to the skate in his absence.
* On a little aside, the armored sand star is just a cool animal. Instead of suckers on the ends of its tube-feet, it has little arrow-shaped tips that make it easier to separate sand grains in order to bury itself. I once timed one who buried itself completely in 10 seconds; which is a furious speed for a sea star to do anything. Also, Astropecten armatus is a fantastic name. I fully intend to name my first daughter Astropecten. Sorry Astro, you’re just going to have to get through those bitchy little years of middle school until that age when the best boys (or ladies) find it irresistible. Besides, you’ll have learned all kinds of ways to crush the will of pretentious and mean-spirited classmates by then. I’ll help.