Sea Dragon


I’m at my desk on a foggy afternoon; my beloved just-married nephew Dave chats with Jean outside in our garden, and his new lovely wife Kathy is napping downstairs in the spare room.  They are here from Portland, having driven down the west coast through the redwoods for their honeymoon, ending here in our ocean town.  Because of them, this morning I did what I have been avoiding for ten years: I visited the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

When I arrived in Santa Cruz in 1991, everyone was brimming with the new Aquarium that had opened just a few years before.  So I went with some friends.  Within an hour I was standing outside, waiting for my friends to finish the tour.  I never could abide zoos and I should have known I’d have the same trouble with an aquarium, no matter how world-class.  To see the startling beautiful sea anemones, starfish, moon jellyfish, octupus and all the wild creatures held behind glass and confined, broke something in me.  How do we help what we love? The people who run that aquarium devote their lives to preserving the ocean and its creatures.  And yet: the wild was tamed and put into window  frames to be viewed as art.  Something was wrong, and I walked away.

I do not know the answer to how we best educate ourselves about the lives of the wild creatures all around us.  To capture them and put them on display for people to pay to see–isn’t the subtext of that the idea that humans have dominion over all the other creatures and can do with them as we please, regardless of their intelligence, their permission, their souls and spirits?  I’ve concluded that one needs to go to the places where these creatures are in the wild if you want to see them, in order to feel the true pulse of their souls.  But only a small number will do that; humans have already moved so far from the other animals of the earth–how will we bring ourselves back if we do not know with whom we share our rare and precious world?  How will any modern person ever see the astonishing creatures I saw today?

That day ten years ago I walked away, my heart hurting for those creatures.  Today, I do not feel entirely different, but I did not walk away.  I did leave my companions, Jean and Dave and Kathy, and walked the Aquarium on my own.  For two hours I walked and looked.  I wept and looked. I sat down and cried and looked.  The Kelp Forest exhibit was stunning.  Hundreds of silver anchovies swam as one magical body on a huge body of ocean water filled with sea kelp along with dozens of ocean fish.  Many awe-filled faces of the young and old stared up into the magical sea forest: alive, primordial, and seemingly untouched by our prying eyes.

Some of the other exhibits hurt as much as not: the octupus in a small tank pressed unhappily against cold glass; beautiful white sea turtles in another small tank, looking unmoored; fish swimming into glass and looking out–not into the endless prairie of the ocean but into hallways of people, cameras flashing.  But the jellyfish are so startlingly beautiful — standing at the glass, for a moment I could feel their lives, their intelligence, their rhythmic rocking with the inner rhythm of the world.  I felt I could touch in slightly with the pulse they felt at the center of the world, and that pulse lived wherever they lived. I stood and watched and thanked them, and was grateful.

By some strange coincidence, as if prefiguring our visit to the Aquarium, Jean and I spent two afternoons at a beach on Tomales Bay near Pt. Reyes last week.  While I was out in the Bay happily swimming, Jean waded in and did one of the things she does best: looking at the world.  And for her looking she was gifted this:  a large bat ray swimming by her, its bat-shaped fins and long stinging tale causing her to shiver.  The bat ray returned an hour later, swimming near her again.  Later she saw a huge, beautiful crab, stepping sideways across the floor of the Bay, and then, amazingly, towards the end of our day, a stunning red-colored jellyfish, its 12-inch long thin tentacles floating and ululating in the waters, its ghostly white core like strange opaque tissue floating from its center–all moving to the hidden currents of the water in a stunning ballet. We watched for thirty minutes or more, mesmerized, until the tide went out and suddenly, like a magic act, it deflated for the evening into a muddle of red on the beach, waiting for the waters to arrive again in the morning.

I was startled to see the creature again today at the Aquarium-as a kind a star–prominently displayed in its incredibly elegant dance.  I learned it is a sea nettle, and how it eats and lives.  It was good to learn these things, but perhaps it does not have to be said that it was a mysterious gift to see a sea nettle in the wild.   Afterward, I almost didn’t walk into the sea horse exhibit, fearing something fey and storybookish.  But the sea horses were utter magic.  Purity lived in those bodies of tank water, and I was suddenly, deeply reminded of all of the wild communities that live in all the seas of the world that we look out upon when we think we are just looking at a pretty ocean.  How did the Sea Earth Mother evolve such beautiful, strange, stunning creatures? I stood and watched, my breathe held in a kind of awe, and said thank you.  So lovely, so rare, so wild still, even in their captive state.

And still, there was this: if I hadn’t walked in to see the sea horses, I would have missed the dragons.  Dragons!  Is this possible?  In the Celtic mythic worlds, I’ve long pondered the fact that Dragons play a large role.  They are magical, of course, outsized and huge; they breathe fire and spout water; they are fierce and can eat you for dinner. In the Celtic Animal Tarot deck you can find a venerable Dragon for each of the four elements: water, fire, earth and air.  I have, to my puzzlement, drawn the Water Dragon many times.  I’ve never cared about the Dragon myths, never wanted to slay the Dragon, never used that warrior template to think about the great challenges of my life.  But if I had to have a Dragon, a Water Dragon seemed an excellent choice for the fates to hand me.  I’m a water creature, I swim many days of the week, and the spirit of the mythic Water Dragon was calm, elegant, strong.

But I did not know that one day I would turn a corner and see one.  Dragon!  First a Weedy Sea Dragon, then a Leafy Sea Dragon.  I have never heard of such creatures, could not have imagined that such things even truly exist.  Dragons! These small, delicate beings are beyond the realm of myth and dream:  they belong in our world and are of it and in it.  I stood and watched the strange and wonderful creatures and wept–tears that had been waiting for weeks, I think, for many long and true and endless personal reasons.  Now I cried but my little problems were not at the essence, nor were the Sea Dragons’ problems of confinement and all the true and difficult issues we face in our cherished and vanishing world. No, I was in the larger, watery world where they floated and alighted and were as beautiful as any creature I have ever seen in any place, ever.  Spindly, ethereal and iridescent, they were also like nothing I have ever seen, ever. They evoked the Dragon myths, but only slightly; they were too much themselves, too wild and fragile and alive and elegant.  So I stood and looked and looked more, and I felt the whole, wide, wild earth, and all the strange creatures in the depths of caves and the deep of the oceans and at the top of wild mountains and in the craggy rocks at the edge of sea. Inside that one little aquarium, I was with the creatures and the wild world, and was alive again.

Here is my little film of the Sea Dragons–as astonishing as any myth.  And here is the essence of it: the true world will knock your skin off.  I don’t know how we will figure out how to teach ourselves about the other animals of the world. The contradictions and my doubts are as present as ever. And still, it is irrefutable that today at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, I have been undone, blessed, made whole by Sea Dragons.  I have been slayed.



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