Why Look at Fish?

DISCUSSED: Diaphanous Clouds of Membrane, Organisms That Breathe Iron, Hermaphrodites, Indoor Jungles, The Age of Aquariums, Roman Praetors, Louis XIV, Woodstock, Surrealism, Unabashed Trade, A Federally Designated “Empowerment Zone,” The Shooting of Songbirds, A Pollution-Friendly EPA, Biophilia, John Berger, Patagonian Toothfish, Traditional Portraiture, Copper Sulfate, Aquariums, Obsession with Stats, Dredging, The Transnational Bourgeoisie’s Fantasy, The Exxon Valdez, The Kyoto Protocol, Faltering Pacific Herring, Leo Marx

Why Look at Fish?

Ginger Strand
Facebook icon Share via Facebook Twitter icon Share via Twitter

What is it about aquariums? Walk into the cool, humming darkness of the zoo’s aquatic counterpart and something magical happens. Burbling blue light, darkened corridors, a silvery flash of fin, a ripple of aquatic wings: aquariums quiver with the promise of unearthly visions. In The Lady from Shanghai, Orson Welles’s passionate clinch with Rita Hayworth unfolds before an aquarial tank: the aquarium’s allure, after all, is not unlike the appeal of illicit sex. Aquariums, like adultery, draw us into a shadowy underworld of unspoken sensual pleasures, an engrossing, exotic environment harboring dangers of mythic proportion.

It’s partly the mystery of it all. The ocean has long been our repository for ideas of the monstrous and the unknowable. “Canst thou draw out leviathan with a hook?” God demands of Job. We can’t control the sea’s creatures—we can barely comprehend them. They challenge our most basic ideas of creatureliness. Creatures have recognizable parts—but in the sea they can be diaphanous clouds of membrane, without eyes, face, stomach, spine, or brain. Creatures move, but oysters drift, and corals are rooted like plants. Creatures have physical integrity, but a starfish chopped in half will grow into two separate beings. Or consider the Portuguese man-of-war, a creature that acts like an individual but is actually a huge colony of beings moving as one. There are fish that can freeze without dying, and other sea creatures living at temperatures above boiling. Recent research around volcanic vents has found tiny organisms that breathe iron. As for reproduction, even the most ordinary fish can be deliriously perverse. They’re hermaphrodites. They switch genders. Males give birth. Some corals and bivalves reproduce by “broadcast spawning,” in which males cast off huge nets of sperm that drift capriciously to any available egg, while snails and leeches mate through what scientists call “traumatic insemination,” where the male fires a detachable sperm-filled harpoon at the unsuspecting body of a female—Jesse James meets Johnny Wad.

As naturalist Loren Eiseley once wrote, “If there is magic on this planet, it is contained in water.”

A visit to an aquarium does little to diminish this sublime terror. Even as it strives to inform, with wall copy and touch screens and neat placards of exhibit-speak, the aquarium mesmerizes visitors, over-flowing and short-circuiting its own pedantic intent. No touch screen on earth can match the allure of a live reef shark, rippling your way with a sinister, toothy smile.

We must love this. Aquariums are currently all the rage. Of the forty-one American aquariums accredited by the American Zoo and Aquarium Association in 2003, more than half opened since 1980, sixteen since 1990 alone.These are not traditional halls of fish tanks but huge, immersive environments with increasingly exotic fish in ever more realistic habitats: live coral reefs, artificial currents, indoor jungles, and living kelp forests. Massive public/private endeavors, the new breed of aquarium has flourished in an era of ambitious urban renewal aimed at reviving derelict inner-city waterfronts. Their prominent role in such schemes has caused the Wall Street Journal to dub the last two decades “the age of aquariums.” We are in love with looking at fish. But why?



There’s a standard story about the history of animal display. It begins with the menagerie, a beast-collection used since ancient times as a sign of princely power and dominance.According to zoo historians, Roman praetors introduced the idea in the West, sending tigers, elephants, snakes and other exotic fauna back to the capitol as symbols of conquest. Other heads of state followed suit. Louis the Fourteenth established a menagerie at Versailles. In England, the tradition of keeping a menagerie at the Tower of London seems to have begun with Henry I, who started his collection of exotic critters at Woodstock. It was common practice for royals to present allies with gift animals.

Sometime in the mid-nineteenth century, the story goes, animal collections evolved a new purpose. As the industrial revolution fostered the rise of an urban working class, animal displays transcended the crass display of dominance, shifting their focus to education. Menageries became “zoological gardens,” sites of learning that forwarded human enlightenment and progress not only through scientific knowledge but through edifying contemplation of the Creator’s work.Where menageries had been private, aristocratic, and designed to intimidate, zoological gardens were public, democratic, and designed to educate. At the same time, technological advances solved some of the problems of maintaining aquatic environments. The first aquarial exhibit in London opened in 1853 and was quickly followed by others in Europe and America.

Nigel Rothfels, in Savages and Beasts:The Birth of the Modern Zoo (2002) outlines how scholars have attacked this idea of a “transformation” from intimidation to education as a sham. In reality, debunkers say, regardless of format, the display animals is always underwritten by social, political and economic imperatives. Modern zoos operate as signs of dominance, but they bear witness to civic pride rather than princely power. The formation of aquariums supports this view. In Paris, for instance, the first public aquarium was built in 1931 for the Colonial Exposition. It brought together a stunning array of sea creatures—the plundered riches of France’s far-flung conquests. (The surrealists, grasping the imperialist implications, demonstrated against it.) America’s first public aquarium launched a different struggle. According to Jerry Ryan’s The Forgotten Aquariums of Boston (Finley  Aquatic Books, 2001), the first “pure” aquarium in America was the Boston Aquarial Gardens, begun by James Cutting in 1859. There were already aquarial exhibits in the U.S., most notably at P.T. Barnum’s American Museum, but these were, according to Ryan,“a collection of curiosities and freaks and ‘pure humbug.’” The Aquarial Gardens, on the other hand, were not crassly commercial, but “dedicated to the appreciation of marine life and the education of the public.” No Feejee Mermaids for Cutting.

But not for long. In 1862 Barnum bought the struggling attraction from Cutting, renaming it the Barnum Aquarial Gardens and repurposing it to the kind of hokum and spectacle purveyed by his American Museum. The re-opening, Ryan relates with scorn, involved a “Great National Dog Show.” Thereafter, the fish shared the limelight not only with dogs, but babies, midgets, albinos, and “dramatic performances.” “The marine life exhibits,” Ryan sighs, “were mere background.” Thus opens the history of American aquariums: with an agon between study and spectacle, teaching and unabashed trade.



The current U.S. aquarium boom can be dated from the opening of the New England Aquarium in 1969. Located on an unpromising stretch of Boston’s derelict waterfront, the New England Aquarium was the first designed by Peter Chermayeff and his groundbreaking exhibit design firm, Cambridge Seven.The Central Wharf, where the aquarium was built, was purchased from the city of Boston for one dollar, and the rest of the project was financed with $6 million in corporate and individual donations.

Estimates were that somewhere around 600,000 visitors a year would pass through the aquarium’s doors. Shortly after the opening, a million had attended.Within walking distance of Faneuil Hall’s new complex of shops and eateries, the aquarium provided the missing waterfront piece of Boston’s urban renaissance. Downtown Boston took off. The site the aquarium occupies is now valued at more than $50 million.

Chermayeff and his associates went on to recreate this magic formula—aquarium + shopping malls = urban renewal—in Baltimore, designing and building the National Aquarium on the dilapidated Inner Harbor. After a 1990 study by the Maryland Department of Economic and Employment Development concluded that the National Aquarium had generated $128.3 million in income for the local economy, blighted city centers began lining up for their fish.

New Orleans already had its project in place; it opened in 1990. In the decade following, Corpus Christi, Columbus, Dallas, Tampa, Charlotte, Pittsburgh, and Charleston all became proud owners of new aquariums. Soon, even smaller struggling cities began to see aquariums as economic development catalysts: one of the first was Camden, New Jersey, already federally designated an “Empowerment zone.” Others followed: Long Beach, California; Chattanooga, Tennessee; even Newport, Kentucky, a riverfront adult-entertainment strip known to its Cincinnati neighbors as “sin city.”

A lot of cities have looked at aquariums as an economic panacea,” Debra Kerr Fassnacht, executive vice president of Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium told the Christian Science Monitor. So many cities added an aquarium to their development wish list that recent articles in the Monitor and the Wall Street Journal raise the specter of a market oversaturated with fish.

Even so, a number of new aquariums are in the works: Atlanta, Georgia; New Bedford, Massachusetts; Los Angeles, California. One project currently in proposal stage is the Great Waters Aquarium for Cleveland, Ohio. It’s planned for the riverfront of the Cuyahoga—a body of water so polluted that it holds the dubious distinction of being the only moving river ever to have caught fire.



What is the link between aquariums and urban renewal? True, an aquarium is more likely to generate popular interest than, say, an art museum. But there are deeper connections, too. Since the nineteenth century, animal displays have been argued to provide moral uplift for the working classes. In an attempt to secure funds for Hamburg’s zoological gardens in 1911, Dr.J.Vosseler summarized the view:

Intimacy with the living world makes people indigenous, and awakens and sustains the sense of home and the love of Nature and her creatures as the best counterbalance to the social disadvantages of modern life.

The “social disadvantages of modern life” assuaged by the zoo are represented more explicitly for us by a 1904 visitor to the New York Zoological Park:

It matters little whether Michael Flynn knows the difference between the caribou and the red deer. It does matter a lot, however, that he has not sat around the flat disconsolate, or in the back room of the saloon, but has taken the little Flynns and Madam Flynn out into the fresh air and sunshine for one mighty good day in which they have forgotten themselves and their perhaps stuffy city rooms.

In this way, zoological gardens and parks were more critical to the “lower orders” than they were for the upper classes, providing not only relief from “stuffy city rooms,” but an alternative to the inevitably degraded amusements they would seek otherwise. In 1869, as concerned citizens raised money to establish a zoological garden in Central Park, the New York Times published an editorial titled “The Necessity of Amusements for the Poor.” The editors argued that “the class of amusements supplied now to the poor is nasty and odious… If there be no amusements of even a pretence of decency, the young man and young girl seek their enjoyment in such places as the Water-street dance-cellars, or the innumerable liquor saloons” (July 4, 1869).

But zoos were more than just distractions; they were sites of instruction, offering “moral improvement” for the working classes not only by diverting their natural tendencies towards drinking, gambling and fighting, but by illustrating the higher principles on which society depended. Zoos provided the working with class with training in middle-class behavior standards, banning alcohol, polka music, littering, the shooting of songbirds, and even, in some cases, restaurants, for fear of creating a “low” atmosphere. Furthermore, the zoological garden’s focus on taxonomies upholds a view of the world—including the human part of it—as hierarchical.The New York Times editorialized:

The true destination of Zoological Gardens would be to serve as a stage for facts and experiments in natural history. An investigation into the laws, by virtue of which animals pass from the savage into the domestic state, attempts at acclimatization, the improvement of the conquered races and re-education of those that remain to conquer—such, in our view, is the field of practical studies in which Zoological Gardens ought to limit their instructions. (July 18, 1868)

Assimilation is in the best interest, then, of cows as well as people. In a nation doubling in population, as the U.S. did between 1860 and 1900 in part due to immigration, that message could hardly fall on deaf ears.

Today’s “Michael Flynns” continue to be offered moral betterment through education in the normative—defined now as conservation. But it’s a particularly personal form of conservation that aquariums propound. Visitors are urged to take individual action: stop littering, use public transportation, avoid banned products like corals, snakeskin, and sea horses. And they are exhorted to care.The local, urban population, particularly urban youth, is the primary focus of this message. As the Monterey Bay Aquarium says on its web site:

Children today need to grow up to be better stewards of nature because of all of the threats to this world. But if they don’t know about the sea and its creatures, how can they care about them?

The implication is that individual action is what counts—and that city kids, with less exposure to nature, are a bigger threat to conservation than, say, the executive board at ExxonMobil, or the sycophants at George Bush’s new, pollution-friendly EPA.

In a more general sense, aquariums are argued to support moral improvement by inspiring a broad appreciation for life itself. Again, Chermayeff has led the charge, moving away from the educational, information-heavy designs of earlier aquariums like Boston’s, and towards a more spectacular, emotion-based approach meant to create a sense of wonder in the viewer.

An aquarium should be “an emotional thing, not a science lesson,” he told Harvard Magazine. Chermayeff frequently borrows biologist E. O.Wilson’s term “biophilia” to describe the response he is aiming for: the innate human attraction to other forms of life.According to Wilson, biophilia is one of the things that defines our humanity. We are human in part because we long to look.



Looking at fish is not like looking at zoo animals. Most zoo creatures are at least partly familiar. Even the creepy denizens of the reptile house or the bat exhibit are critters we might come across in our daily lives. But fish don’t come from our habitat. The aquarium is a terrestrial embassy from a nonterrestrial world. If fish went about on land, making themselves visible out the kitchen window or from the car as we sped past them on the highway, they wouldn’t be half as fascinating. We’d look—we’re lookers after all—but we wouldn’t look with the same feeling of excitement, that thrill of transgression we get from gazing through that foot or so of acrylic that makes the formerly unseeable seen.

John Berger’s classic essay, “Why Look at Animals?” printed in the collection About Looking (Pantheon, 1980), asks why we are so doomed to disappointment at animal parks.The inevitable feeling at a zoo, he claims, is baffled unfulfillment: “Why are these animals less than I believed?”

Berger proposes an answer: while we long to see animals as connected to us, in fact the very conditions of their visibility highlight how separate they are. Placed in faked habitats, lit by artificial means and footnoted with informational copy, they become merely “objects of our ever-extending knowledge.” We see them, but the gaze is one-way.They don’t see us. The technologies that make them visible and interpretable only serve to differentiate and distance them further: “What we know about them is an index of our power, and thus an index of what separates us from them.”

Berger blames this on modernity: the very historical conditions that gave rise to zoos also ensured the disappearance of animals from everyday life. With urbanization and the industrial revolution, machines replaced animal labor, while factories took over breeding them. Along with cuddly animal toys, anthropomorphized animal imagery, and urban pets, zoos became monuments to the disappearance of true beasts from our lives, “an epitaph to a relationship which was as old as man.”

Following Berger’s construct, one might read the aquarium boom of the eighties and nineties as a monument to the disappearance of sea creatures not only from our lives, but from the planet. In The Empty Ocean (Shearwater Books, 2003) biologist Richard Ellis outlines the various ecological disasters now making the oceans what he calls “the next environmental battleground.” Among them is the disappearance of fish. A seemingly inexhaustible resource has been depleted, in many cases beyond recovery. Among the missing: miles-long swarms of cod off the Grand Banks, gray whales that once roamed the Atlantic, the giant Patagonian toothfish of South America, nearly extinguished in the two short decades since its 1982 L.A. debut under the stage name Chilean sea bass.The world’s leading sardine canneries, on Cannery Row in Monterey, closed in the seventies when sardine stocks became too skimpy to support an industry. As if to illustrate Berger’s point, the old cannery has become the site of the highly acclaimed Monterey Bay Aquarium, built by Lucile and David Packard of Hewlett-Packard.

But Berger’s formula falters when we consider aquarium technology. For Berger, the zoo’s technology distances the animals from us. But fish are invisible without those technologies. Hence, in aquariums, technology is not disguised. Habitats may aim for realism, but the pumps and plate glass aren’t embarrassing necessities, like the camouflaged fence limning the captive tiger’s fake jungle. In aquariums, the technology that makes the creatures available to us is part of what we come to admire, what creates our sensation of awe and wonder. Aquariums know this and are immensely fond of citing their stats: the number of tank gallons, the thickness of the acrylic walls, the sophisticated filtration and aeration systems that make it all possible. In flaunting this technological prowess, aquariums reach for the sublime.

The ocean has always been sublime, which is to say it has always been capable of instilling wonder and awe, appreciation tinged with terror.The age of reason borrowed the notion of the sublime from the ancients as a counterpoint to mere beauty. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, poets and painters valorized the sublime, and turned to nature to evoke it. Then, only the natural world had the scale and complexity to be sublime. Today, that’s no longer true: sublimity resides best in the man- made world.David Nye,in American Technological Sublime (MIT Press, 1994), argues that this is an American phenomenon: where once we looked at nature and gleaned a sense of the divine, now we look at technology and glean a feeling of national pride. Leviathan is superseded by levees.

We have come a long way from the question of why aquariums might be good devices for slum clearance. Or have we?



Writing in Communique, the magazine of the American Zoo and Aquarium Association, John Bierlein, exhibit manager at Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo, states a truism in contemporary exhibit design:animal displays must create awareness and appreciation not only of animals, but of the habitats that sustain them.“One of our goals,” he writes, “is to accentuate the inseparable connection between the survival of animal species and the survival of their wild habitats” (March, 2003).

But the zoo or aquarium’s very existence suggests the opposite. Increasingly, endangered animal populations are kept alive only by conservation parks—the best husbandry might be done not by nature but by man. Without zoo and aquarium captive-breeding programs, many recovering animal species, including the California condor and the Arabian oryx,might still be languishing on the endangered list,or worse,might be entirely extinct. No longer viewed as unfortunate captives or pale imitations of their wild counterparts,zoo and aquarium animals are now considered a fortunate, treasured few.

The aquarium not only improves on nature; in substituting the technological sublime for the natural sublime, it improves on our relationship to it. Ecologically adept and technologically brilliant, the aquarium is a twenty-first-century utopia, a place where culture and nature unite to induce wonder. Publicity photos offered by aquariums make this clear. They have evolved a standard vocabulary of awe and absorption to indicate the new heights of sensation achieved in this artificial world.

Publicity photos are mostly of two types. First is the animal close-up. These tend to feature either anthropomorphized creatures—otters, toads, turtles—or wildly strange or scary ones—sharks, jellies, lionfish, seahorses. Regardless of subject, they follow an unwritten set of rules. Framed according to the conventions of traditional portraiture and engaging the camera eye directly, the fish—or otter or shark or turtle—is a direct refutation of Berger’s claim that the animal has no gaze with which to return ours. (There are exceptions: the leafy sea dragon, a creature straight out of a cartoon, is almost always shown in profile: to grant it a gaze would undermine its adaptive resemblance to its kelp habitat.) They look right at us, and their expressions mirror the intelligence and thoughtful interest that these encounters promise to inspire in us. Sometimes they appear in pairs or groups, and their relationships are always idyllic—devoted couples, attentive parents, cooperative social units. Signs of strife, dominance or struggle are absent—as they largely are in the aquarium itself, where the copper sulfate used to treat water for algae and parasites also reduces the natural aggressiveness of fish and sharks.

The second kind of photo shows humans interacting with the  aquarium environment. Here, too, a standard vocabulary prevails, its predominant gestures connoting both the aquarium’s magnitude and the human response to it. Pointing or reaching hands are common. Faces are shown angled upward, lips parted in wonder. The sensation of sublimity is often indicated by composition as well. One of the most popular shots, for instance, is a panorama of a large, backlit tank with one or more people silhouetted in front of it. The aquarium environment, the shot tells you, is completely absorbing: you lose yourself in it.

The Tennessee Aquarium media library includes one particularly interesting photo. It shows a young African-American boy in a pop-up tank—a large tank with a bubble-shaped window on its floor, giving viewers a vantage point from inside the tank habitat. The boy is looking at a seahorse, and the angle of the shot makes it look as if the seahorse is gazing back at him. His expression—eyes wide, mouth a circle of delighted astonishment—is striking. Next to him, you can just make out the pink coat and hair braids of a slightly taller girl—his classmate? His sister? It doesn’t matter. The boy’s expression of joy is the shot’s focal point. He is Tennessee’s twenty-first-century answer to “Michael Flynn,” a (presumably) urban youth having his eyes—literally—opened, his perspective changed through contact with another living thing. The highly mediated nature of that contact is elided—the tank walls separating seahorse and boy vanish—and yet that very mediation is in some sense the subject of the photo.The photo is not depicting the boy, nor the aquarium’s nifty acrylic sphere, but the experience made possible by their encounter. That experience is coded as an exchange of sympathies between two beings—our Michael Flynn and a seahorse—and by extension, between gritty urban reality and the magical world of nature.



The new aquariums propose a reconciliation of nature and technology. In doing so, they offer to reconcile environmentalism and corporate culture. Sometimes this can be quite explicit: in Baltimore, for example, each exhibit has a corporate sponsor. Placards over each tank inform you that, for instance, the electric eels are brought to you by Tristate Electricity Suppliers. That connection may inspire a chuckle, but for the most part, the signs are subtle. It takes some looking to realize that every inch of the so-called National Aquarium is underwritten by American business. The picture is clearer on the web site.The section on corporate sponsors lists 216 corporations and businesses that have supported the aquarium to the tune of anywhere from $850 to more than $25,000. It includes General Motors, IBM, Proctor and Gamble, Castrol HDL, Lockheed Martin Naval Electronics, Aegon, and, alone in the “Corporate Circle,” defense contractor Northrop Grumman.

Baltimore isn’t alone. Clearly, corporate P.R. departments have seen the relatively worry-free advantage of associating themselves with something as crowd-pleasing and uncontroversial as an aquarium—no Piss Christs or Mapplethorpes here. Coca-Cola and SunTrust Banks are presenting sponsors of the Tennessee Aquarium. Coca-Cola reappears as an institutional sponsor of the New England Aquarium, along with Comcast and Sovereign Bank. PepsiCo underwrites the Oregon Coast Aquarium in Newport, Oregon,and the South Carolina Aquarium in Charleston, South Carolina where it is joined by Philip Morris, Alcoa, BMW and Chevron.

Somehow, it seems appropriate for the new breed of mega-aquariums to thrive on corporate sponsorship. With their expensive, advanced technology, they seem like they must be brought to us by the companies that build printers or cars. But it’s more than that. We expect public museums to be like the outdated National Aquarium in Washington, D.C.—rows of medium-sized fish tanks in the basement of the Department of Commerce. It’s interesting—they’re still fish—but bland, staid, educational.Instead, the highly planned, affective environments of the splashy new aquariums have a corporate feel: the glitzy crowd appeal, the slick presentation of easy-to-digest facts, the obsession with their own stats. It’s the real thing.

Furthermore, aquariums are telling a pro-corporate story. They posit a world in which the chief danger to nature is individual apathy. Baltimore’s National Aquarium, for instance, offers cautious tips for how individuals can promote conservation: recycle! Install water-saving showerheads! Conserve electricity! As for cars, they suggest Americans drive a fuel-efficient vehicle—which they define as thirty-two miles to the gallon, knocking about ten miles off what environmentalists typically advocate. When it comes to driving less, they are more guarded. “Sharing a ride just once or twice a month,” they point out, “can have a tremendous impact.”

Corporate behavior, on the other hand, is never questioned. In fact, it is nature’s friend. Example: the star exhibit at the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas in New Orleans, a 400,000 gallon Gulf of Mexico tank boasting a replica of an abandoned oil rig. Behind thirteen inches of acrylic, sharks, rays, groupers, gars, and turtles meander around shellfish-encrusted pilings. Abandoned oil rigs, the wall copy explains, should be considered valuable ecosystems, improvements on nature, not eyesores.

Another placard, likely to be passed over by schoolchildren, displays the logos of companies that sponsor the Gulf of Mexico tank: Amoco. Shell. ExxonMobil. Chevron. Kerr-McGee.Auto parts maker Tenneco. Oil-field couplings manufacturer Wheeling Machine Products. The one aquarium that has tried to avoid leaping into the sponsorship fray is the pioneering New England Aquarium in Boston. Its freedom from corporate donors is evident when you read its display copy: global warming, overfishing, overuse of fossil fuels—no punches are pulled in its conservation message. Sadly, this freedom can’t last.

The New England Aquarium’s dire financial situation caused the AZA to revoke its accreditation in March of 2003.According to President and CEO Edmund Toomey, “the Aquarium is engaged in an ambitious strategic planning process and has launched several initiatives to strengthen its financial position.” Undoubtedly these initiatives will include increasing the number of corporate underwriters—and whatever content adjustments are required to keep them happy.




Built as part of a plan to redevelop Chattanooga’s riverfront, the Tennessee Aquarium focuses on the Tennessee River ecosystem. But the Tennessee River can really no longer be considered a river at all. Rather, it’s a system of reservoirs, linked by some thirty-five dams. In recreating the “original”Tennessee River environment, the aquarium is creating a monument to a body of water that no longer exists.This is not odd: more and more, it’s part of what aquariums do. In fact, it wouldn’t be unreasonable, every time you saw a fancy new aquarium, to ask What body of water has been destroyed here? You might then want to look at the corporate donors and ask a further question: How might they be implicated?

Witness the Florida Aquarium in Tampa. One of the nation’s top ten busiest ports, Tampa Bay is Florida’s largest open-water estuary. Its naturally shallow harbor requires continual dredging and channel-digging to support the port’s heavy traffic in phosphates, petroleum, and seafood. By the late 1970s, this constant dredging and filling, combined with nitrogen-polluted water, had led to algae-bloom, fish kills, and the death of more than half the sea grasses that provided natural nurseries for the area’s fish.

The Florida Aquarium opened on Tampa Bay in 1995. One of its corporate sponsors is Cargill, developers of the phosphate industries that necessitate the harbor’s regular dredging, and one of the world’s largest producers of the nitrogen fertilizers that choke the Bay. Today, these fertilizers pour down the Mississippi from the Corn Belt and into the Gulf of Mexico, where, according to a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration report, they are the primary drivers of a seasonal “Dead Zone”: an area the size of New Jersey—and growing—in which nothing can live from May to September.

Or consider the Great Lakes Aquarium, a freshwater aquarium located in Duluth, Minnesota. Duluth Harbor was created in 1871, when mayor J.B. Culver and fifty men with picks and shovels, racing against a federal injunction, dug a channel in the sandbar that separated the St. Louis River from Lake Superior. By the time the “cease and desist” order arrived, it was all, as they say, water under the bridge. Since then, Duluth Harbor has become one of the busiest Great Lakes ports, and the St. Louis River has become one of Lake Superior’s most polluted tributaries. Local industries, most notably U.S. Steel, released PCBs, mercury, cyanide, and other volatile organic compounds into it for over fifty years. In the eighties, the area was designated a Superfund site and the closed U.S. Steel plant put on the National Priorities List. U.S. Steel is a business partner at the Great Lakes Aquarium.

There are many more examples. Paper and packaging giant Sonoco, having dumped thousands of pounds of PCBs into Lake Michigan via the Fox River, sponsors the South Carolina Aquarium. Cinergy, the coal-heavy utility singularly responsible for 1 percent of the earth’s greenhouse gas emissions, bought naming rights to the Cinergy Theater at Kentucky’s Newport Aquarium. Aquariums have become a sort of consolation prize for communities whose drinking water has been despoiled, whose fish have been poisoned, whose runoff has turned toxic, and whose waterfronts have been left to die.

“In a world full of simulations and clever illusions, zoos and aquariums increasingly become the authenticators of what is real and still alive,” John Bierlein writes. But it isn’t just fish we want to imagine alive; it’s the sea itself. Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. Charleston Harbor. Monterey Bay, the Tennessee River, Lake Superior, even the noxious Cuyahoga. Few big aquarium projects are landlocked, because the aquarium feeds nostalgia not only for vanishing sea creatures, but for a lost connection to the waterfront itself. Inland water travel is a distant memory; sea travel is a hobby for retirees; even our fishing and canning industries are dying as our fisheries, one by one, are depleted.The vibrant maritime metropolis celebrated in Alfred Stieglitz’s early-twentieth-century photos of docks, ships, disembarking crowds, and commercial water traffic has vanished.

In his brilliant photo essay Fish Story (Richter Verlag, 1995), Allan Sekula recounts how the rise of container shipping in the 1960s led to the removal of commercial ports to the urban margins. New York’s port, for instance, is now in Elizabeth, New Jersey. As the increasingly automated working harbor moved out of sight, city dwellers lost track of the huge amounts of labor—grubby, back-breaking, and poorly remunerated—that underwrites a global economy predicated on the transfer of goods and workers.The container, according to Sekula, is “the very coffin of remote labor-power,” a banknote-shaped sarcophagus enabling “the transnational bourgeoisie’s fantasy of a world of wealth without workers, a world of uninhibited flows.”

Thus bereft of purpose and meaning, urban waterfronts be- came derelict and dangerous, ripe for commercial redevelopment. They’re reborn as retail-driven fantasy ports like Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, now trumpeted as “one of America’s oldest seaports—and one of the world’s newest travel destinations.” Tampa Bay’s Channelside is similar, as is Chattanooga’s riverfront, rechristened Ross’s Landing, where the Tennessee Aquarium paved the way for one hundred new stores and restaurants, property value increases of 124 percent, and an economic impact estimated to be around a billion dollars. All these waterfront complexes, in addition to aquariums, feature Disney-like recreations of waterfront life: scenic boat tours, shopping malls with seaside themes, maritime museums and plenty of chain-operated seafood restaurants to serve up the last of the vanishing cod, once so thick off the Grand Banks that fishermen drew them up by the basketful. We want to see the ocean as rich and teeming with life when all over the world it is dying, fisheries collapsed, tidal basins clogged by development, coral reefs bleached to lifelessness.

We want to see the waterfront as a vital source for economic growth, but magically free of the ugly trappings of hazardous  cargos, grimy industry, and unions. Even as it becomes more obviously the barometer of our ability to kill, we cling to the notion of the sea as the cradle of life. And we are nostalgically reconstructing the seaside—an improved, sanitized version—before we have even finished eradicating it.

The zoo, as Berger contends, may be an epitaph for our lost connection to animals, but the aquarium is a headstone—a great big, titanium-clad one—for our lost connection to water.



On Good Friday, 1989, the Exxon Valdez, a 987-foot, single-hulled tanker, ran aground on Bligh Reef in Alaska’s Prince William Sound. At least eleven-million gallons of heavy crude oil—125 Olympic-pools-full—gushed into the sound’s pristine waters and began to spread, eventually oiling 1,300 miles of coastline.The immediate, countable damage was dramatic: at least a quarter-million dead seabirds, 2,800 dead sea otters, 300 dead harbor seals, 250 dead bald eagles.The uncountable effects on the ecosystem were even more disastrous, including what scientists estimate to be billions of destroyed salmon and herring eggs and juveniles, along with genetic malformations affecting generations to come.

The Exxon Valdez disaster put Prince William Sound on the map. News footage and photos of seabirds, otters, and eagles slicked with oil were a P.R. disaster for one of the world’s wealthiest corporations. Exxon went to work immediately to repair its image. More than a decade after the spill, it seemed to have succeeded. Exxon stock had tripled, and it merged with Mobil to become the world’s largest oil corporation, with more than $12 billion in profits annually. The Economist recently declared it “the world’s best-run energy company.” But even before the merger, as it appealed the 1994 U.S. District Court decision slapping it with $5 billion in punitive damages, Exxon had repaired its public image enough to turn its massive resources to the job of helping to sink U.S. participation in the Kyoto Protocol on global warming, a goal met in March 2001 with President Bush’s scrapping of the accord.

The environmental clean up has been less successful than the publicity one. While Exxon describes the sound’s environment as “healthy, robust and thriving,” the Oil Spill Trustee Council, an organization created by the government to disburse the millions of dollars in reparations Exxon paid in settlements, disagrees. Of the thirty “injured resources” being tracked, the OSTC lists only sevenas recovered fifteen years later. Among the species posted as “not recovering” are the common loon, three species of cormorants, harbor seals, the harlequin duck, the pigeon guillemot and one of the sound’s foundation species, the Pacific herring.

Around thirty-nine million dollars of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Settlement Fund went towards building an aquarium. The Alaska SeaLife Center in Seward opened in May 1998, with the declared purpose of “understanding and maintaining the integrity of the marine ecosystem of Alaska through research, rehabilitation and public education.” Designed by the Cambridge Seven, the Center was designed to combine a marine research and rehabilitation center with a tourist attraction.

Many of the species still suffering from the effects of the spill—and facing further threats from climate change and overfishing—can now be seen in the Center. Harbor seals, the pigeon guillemot and the Pacific herring are thriving at the Center, even as they falter in the wild. One can find Steller’s sea lions there, a marine mammal whose 93 percent decline in population over the last thirty years has landed them on the endangered list. “We probably have the best habitat in the world for these animals,” then-executive director Kim Sundberg told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer in 1998.“Everything’s been designed to accommodate full-sized adult Steller sea lions.” It’s a far cry from their natural habitat, particularly Prince William Sound, where the continued post-spill lack of nutrient-rich herring has driven sea lions to eat pollack, a fish that marine biologists call “the junk food of the sea.” At the SeaLife Center, the sea lions enjoy their herring iced: it’s Canyon Ranch for marine mammals.

Aquarium for Wildlife Conservation (Coney Island), Brooklyn NY. Photograph by Diane Cook. Courtesy Paul Kopeikin Gallery, Los Angeles.

The SeaLife Center is officially owned by the city of Seward, population 2,500, and operated by the Seward Association for the Advancement of Marine Science, a non-profit affiliated with the University of Alaska. Exxon, however, has done little to disguise its role.

Most of the press around the opening of the Center mentioned Exxon’s restitution settlement as its main funding source. But Exxon’s fingerprints remain on more than the money. The corporation’s very language has structured discussion of the disaster from the beginning, and now shapes debate on the status of the clean-up.

According to Exxon’s press release on the state of Prince William Sound, the Oil Spill Trustee Council’s declarations of incomplete recovery can’t be trusted.This is because some populations might have been in decline before the Valdez spill.

Addressing the issue of the common murre, a seabird failing to thrive, Exxon’s release states that “there was little information about  the size of the murre population prior to the spill. Yet for the Trustees, murre population recovery is dependent on a return to pre-spill conditions—when it is obvious that no one knows what those conditions were, or what the population would have been had no oil been spilled.”

The SeaLife Center’s executive director, Tylan Schrock, uses very similar language to describe the Center’s function. “When the Exxon Valdez went aground and had that terrible natural disaster,” he told KNLS, a World Christian Broadcasting radio station,“one of the things that came out of that was a recognition that we didn’t even know what the baseline information from that ecosystem was.That was one of the real strong messages that came out of the oil spill. We can construct a world-class research institution that will provide that baseline data. And we never want to see that type of a natural disaster up here again, but we’re not gonna kick ourselves for not having the information the second time around if it does happen to us.”

Schrock, intentionally or not, is telling an authorized story—as does the SeaLife Center itself. The Cambridge Seven design, borrowing features from other successful projects, is calculated to tell an uplifting story of cooperation between corporate culture and the public trust. Like the firm’s other designs, the Center leads visitors through a predetermined tour route, starting with an escalator trip to the second level.When the Center opened, after an initial exhibit introducing Alaska’s marine life, visitors were led into a room entirely devoted to the Valdez disaster. Text, photos, maps, and day-by-day accounts described the damage and the clean-up effort.

Emerging from this area, visitors would see the Center’s research facility, overlooking the research deck and wet lab as they moved towards the realistic Resurrection Bay habitat in which many of the area’s struggling species—sea lions, seals, puffins, and murres— could be seen enjoying themselves. They then descended to the first level, where they got an underwater view of the habitat.

The progression of the tour could best be described as triumphal. The viewer began, after some preliminary facts, with disaster. The negative feelings spurred by this display were immediately qualified by the Center’s scientific capabilities. The final impression was one of a better-than-real-life habitat in which endangered species were hearty, thriving, and accessible. As the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported in a 1998 article on the Center, “Here, children could spend hours communing with the noses and faces of chocolate-brown seals and sea lions.” Through its rehabilitation programs and its ability to make animals visible, the Center posed itself as an example of how technology can improve on nature.

Today the Center is arranged on a slightly different plan. The Valdez disaster display has been relocated from the beginning of the tour to the end.After viewing the underwater tanks, visitors can listen to an audio exhibit called “Exxon Valdez Oil Spill: The Continuing Legacy.” The text gives an update on species affected by the disaster. The final display, however, is a video of Stellar’s sea lions. The visitor ends, again, with the image of thriving, magnificent animals.

The SeaLife Center suggests a story that is in keeping with the one Exxon tells through its press releases—the story of a tragic accident that, through corporate accountability and the use of advanced technology, was prevented from causing serious, long-term harm. It’s tempting to see this narrative as a brazen and prejudicial imposition on an unwilling public.

But what’s happening is more complicated. If Exxon’s story appeals, it isn’t just because Exxon wants it to. Exxon is telling the story people long to believe, the story at the heart of our use of aquariums as agents of urban renewal. People want to believe that technology and nature can be united, that corporate culture tends to forward the public good. That’s the story aquariums tell, all by themselves. In yoking technology and nature as if there were no conflicts between them, aquariums sit astride what Leo Marx called “the contradiction at the heart of culture that would deify the Nature it is engaged in plundering.”

Monterey Bay Aquarium, Monterey CA. Photograph by Len Jenshel. Courtesy Paul Kopeikin Gallery, Los Angeles.



Senegalese conservationist Baba Dioum once said,“In the end, we will conserve only what we love.” The quote is often cited as a rationale for spending large sums on animal display. Aquariums, their promoters claim, help us to love fish. They help us love the wonders of the sea, in all their richness and all their strangeness too. Only by looking a harbor seal or a leafy sea dragon in the eye will we really see that there is something there to be valued.

Do aquariums achieve this end? And if they do, does it matter? A recent book of photographs is the best current document of the worldwide aquarium boom. Aquarium by Diane Cook and Len Jen- shel (Aperture, 2003) juxtaposes two photographers whose pictures pose very different answers to such questions. Cook’s black and white photos are texturally rich and often abstract, focusing mostly on what mesmerizes aquarium visitors themselves: the delicate tendrils of a jellyfish, the comic cartwheel of a crab, the rippling rows of suckers on an octopus’s underneath.When there are human subjects in them, they commune with the animals. In one, a walrus turns its head as it swims past a child’s hand pressed to the tank window. The window seems to disappear, so the walrus appears to be pressing its muzzle against the child’s stubby fingers. It’s a false sense of intimacy—exactly what aquariums, at their best, create.

Len Jenshel’s color pictures, in contrast, draw out the separation between human and animal, between observers and observed. His people are blurred and indistinct; his viewing subjects always seem to be missing the view. A single woman in a red skirt stands in an underwater tunnel at the Bahamas’ Atlantis resort, a large gold handbag under her arm. A school of silvery fish arc over the tunnel above her, their luminescent curves echoing her shiny bag. She gazes, not up at them, but at something unseen off to the left, so the school’s spectacular swoop goes unnoticed, except to us. In another tunnel shot in the same aquarium, a woman in shorts and a bikini top is seen leaving as amournful looking fish floats in the foreground, disconsolate. A joke on a break up scene, the photo dramatizes the separation that, as John Berger would have it, is the only relationship possible between displayed animals and their observers.

Looking at Cook’s photos, one is struck with the awe and wonder that sea creatures have the ability to inspire. Looking at Jenshel’s, one takes a step back from that awe and asks Is it enough?Will our oceans be saved by a sea turtle’s wise face, or the luminous, ethereal beauty of a tank full of jellies? A more fundamental question underlies that one: what does education have to do with love? Is instilling a sense of wonder truly a higher educational goal, the root of real understanding? Or is it simply the easiest effect to induce in the overstimulated, MTV generation? David Powell, former director of live-exhibit development at the esteemed Monterey Bay Aquarium, would argue for wonder.“My original goal,” he writes in his memoir, A Fascination for Fish (2001), “was to bring as much factual understanding as possible to the visitor…Now I see things quite differently. I’ve come to realize that perhaps our true goal in the aquarium world is to inspire awe, to create a sense of wonder and appreciation that will grow into caring. Communicating facts is all well and good, but without awakening a sense of caring we have accomplished little.”

It’s a convincing argument, but it fails to account for the ways in which aquariums are making an argument, even as they seem to offer simply the visual spectacle of nature in all its glory. Here is where you can find this, they say, presenting their acres of sparkling acrylic. Here is what we have done for nature.

When you visit an aquarium, there are usually boxes or cute parking meters where you can drop in a quarter for wetlands preservation, or a “save the Amazon rainforest” charity. But you’re more likely to be overwhelmed by the technological sophistication of a facility that could clearly be funded only by corporate America. ExxonMobil, and its cronies, continue to support the aquarium boom. And they continue to bankroll the ever-dwindling number of scientists who will question the reality of global warming and the still plentiful politicians who will ignore it.

Meanwhile, the ocean’s fisheries dwindle, the waterfront retreats from view, and historical memory founders on the reefs of complacency.After the Valdez disaster, Congress legislated that all oil tankers in Prince William Sound must be double-hulled by the year 2015. Most tanker-owners are beginning to comply. The only major oil company that has not yet built a double-hulled tanker is ExxonMobil. As for the Valdez, Exxon refloated it, towed it to San Diego (after Portland refused to harbor it), and repaired it. It changed the ship’s name to the Mediterranean, and its subsidiary’s name from Exxon Shipping to Sea River Maritime. Exxon then petitioned to have a 1990 law barring the ship from Alaskan waters declared unconstitutional. When that failed, it filed a “takings” claim against the federal government, demanding $125 million in reparations. Currently, the Sea River Mediterranean carries oil between Europe, Africa, and the South Pacific.At last sight, it was continuing ExxonMobil’s commitment to education: as part of a project called “Refining the Future,” the children of Hallett Cove South Primary school in Adelaide, Australia, are in regular email contact with the ship and its crew. ✯

More Reads

David Hockney’s Handwritten Fax-Screed

For starters, see if you can find yourself one of those concave makeup mirrors, you know, the kind that make your face look larger than it is. Tomorrow morning, when it’s ...


Slaves to the Visual

Benjamin Weissman

High Desert Drifter

Jim Ruland