Saturday, August 29, 2015

Monterey Bay Aquarium: Mermaid purses and pulsing jellies

The sea, once it casts its spell, holds one in its net of wonder forever.
~ Jacques Cousteau

No need for Cousteau’s Calypso ship, just meander on foot through Monterey Bay Aquarium to experience the sea’s net of wonder. A recent visit there was truly awe-inspiring ~ a colorful eye candied, curiosity-tickling, fascinating-fact packed undersea adventure. Oh, and just plain fun. I could have stood all day watching sea otters frolic ~ torpedoing on their backs, rolling like logs, gleefully chomping raw fish chunks, and clenching tiny claws around bright blue balls as a child might hold his favorite toy. Playful seems to be their mantra.

I’m always delighted to find skate on a restaurant menu, and I knew skates look like and are related to sting rays. But through one aquarium exhibit I learned how young skates enter their watery world. A skate lays eggs in an egg case, sometimes called a mermaid’s purse, because that’s what it looks like, a small sac with curved “handles,” which are shaped like hooks. The handles’ function is to catch on seaweed or some object that would anchor the egg case to the sea floor until the embryo develops. Another amazing design in this process is that the sac is waterproof until the embryo develops gills at three weeks old. Then holes form, admitting water, and the baby skate first learns to swim in its protective case. Big bang creation theory? … primordial soup? … I’m sorry, can’t buy it. Someone thought this through.

In all my years beachcombing, I think I have found only one or two whole sand dollar skeletons. I never thought about what life is like for a living sand dollar. At the aquarium I learned they are flat sea urchins whose spines move them along the seabed. The exhibit we saw showed groups of furry sand dollars burrowed upright at an angle advantageous for food flowing in the water to pass their mouths.

Beware jellyfish at the beach! I have seen swarms of white, long-tentacled jellyfish in the ocean right in the swimming area. I have tiptoed around little clear, breathing balloons on the beach and then finally donned shoes again so as not to accidentally get stung. When I’ve seen hundreds of Portuguese Man O’ Wars’ huge, pink-puffed, inky-blue stingers dotting the tide line, I keep shoes on at all times. When jellies swim in safety behind aquarium glass, however, I can better appreciate their translucent, delicate beauty. In fact, though their pulsations look like swimming, jellyfish only drift with the current. I had on some level known this, thanks to Phil Vischer’s explanation of why he named his new company Jellyfish Labs ~ he wanted God to be the current directing his company. But I liked seeing how jellies keep a beat and go with the flow. Sometimes their rhythms seem like dancing. Sometimes their tentacles flutter like flames. Bioluminescent jellies sparkle like stardust. I forget the tentacles are stingers when they look like crystal beaded-bracelets. My favorite jelly looked like white vintage lace.

I smiled to see a tank full of little, beige, flat fish that swam flat, undulating like so many flying carpets, as if to say, “Hop on for a tour of my watery wonderland.” Aquariums are sure to amuse and brighten one’s day.

Friday, August 14, 2015

You know you’re not in France …

Vegetable gardening here in Illinois and visiting France have taught me to love marchés, or farmers markets. In both the U.S. and in France, fresh, local, heirloom, and artisanal flavors awaken the taste buds. And in France, farmers’ arrangements are an art form—a feast for the eyes. Less artistic, practical U.S. farmers generally just put little bins and pint and quart boxes on a table to display their produce. As I sling Provençal cabas, or market basket, over my shoulder and stride toward a new market, I’m eager for both freshness and artistry. Standing in the midway of the market, I glance up and down both lines of booths for the French signature: beauty. Here in the States, I’m often disappointed, as in our recent stop at a Michigan market.

Promising signs were pretty flower displays and a quiche vendor …

… and a chef creating both savory and sweet crêpes.

But then, you know you’re not in France when the market sells Yooper pasties and Amish cheese, especially with a tacky plastic cheese wedge on a car.

Some booths straddled the France/U.S. line, in my opinion. On one hand, sea salt caramels are ubiquitous along the Atlantic coast of France. On the other hand, chocolate covered bacon sounds right out of a Homer Simpson cartoon. And free copies of the New Testament? I have never seen this in France, though I’m sure it happens.

Regarding market baskets, well, again practicality reigns in this country, where most everyone nowadays brings reusable cloth bags to farmers markets. Compare the Michigan market’s single pole of baskets for sale with a French marché’s vibrant, tumbling sea of basket beauty.