Under the Sea

Jaws is one of my favorite movies of all time. It might seem like a creepy choice to make such a list, but for me it’s the ultimate story about both the beauty and the terror of the ocean. Even the characters feel it – from the reverence and awe of Richard Dreyfus’ scientist, to Robert Shaw’s at-first jaded, rough, and cynical sea captain, to Roy Scheider’s naive, rightly nervous police chief, we get to experience all the different feelings and thoughts about being afraid, being amazed, and being very vulnerably human in such a vast place without actually having to be there.

I also love how the characters’ relationships grow and change, becoming close despite such different backgrounds in their hunt for the great white shark. It’s a truly great film.

Beautiful soft and hard corals on display

It’s been awhile since I’ve posted here, I realized, the summer has just flown by. But I was thinking a lot about Jaws when I visited Via Aquarium not far from my home in upstate New York, and had to write about it. I just learned about the aquarium from a coworker, and was super excited when my friend Maria wanted to go this weekend.

Part of a dying shopping mall has been transformed into an amazing space full of fresh- and saltwater exhibits. There is also a touch-tank area where you can pet starfish, horseshoe crabs, and sea urchins, feed and pet stingrays (which we totally did), and get mobbed by beautiful Koi fish as they swarm up for food. Each exhibit is labeled with cool information about its residents, and there is an emphasis on conservation throughout.

My friend Maria at the Caribbean Reef tank

It isn’t a huge place, but we easily spent a couple of hours wandering through the exhibits and touching the rays (I could have stayed there for hours just watching, they were so peaceful and graceful).

We got to see moon jellyfish gliding along, pot-bellied seahorses, several types of small sharks, crabs, lobsters, corals, anemones, Moray and electric eels, snails, shrimp, and all different kinds of fish. There was even a nice display devoted to native New York state fish, so we got to see them up close underwater (instead of just on a fishing line).

As we were walking through the all-glass shark tunnel, watching white- and black-tip reef sharks swim overhead, I started telling Maria about the story of the USS Indianapolis as it’s told in Jaws, how oceanic white-tip sharks had taken out hundreds of crewmen floating helplessly in the open Pacific after their ship was torpedoed in World War II. She hadn’t seen the movie since it came out in theaters years ago. But the scene where Robert Shaw quietly, painfully tells the others that story is still one of the most powerful and frightening moments in a movie for me. I always feel like I’m hearing it for the first time.

This black lionfish was amazing to see (though I wouldn’t want to touch him)

We started talking then about how we both would love to go visit the ocean. I haven’t been in several years, and each year I miss it more. Despite its unpredictability and the potential terrors living just below the surface of the water, there is nothing like the ocean to make me feel simultaneously connected to and separate from everything.

It is unbiased, humbling, amazing, frightening, and beautiful. It’s representative of all the aspects of nature in one place, reminding me always that humans are just a small part of the great wide world we live in. And I deeply wish more of us understood that, too.

Pot-bellied seahorses, I loved these

Which is what I hoped all the people – many of them families with small children – came to see as they walked through the aquarium with us today, marveling at the fish, at all the life that exists under the water. It is good, I think, to remember that this world is not ours, or just ours, that all life is valuable, beautiful, and miraculous really, especially considering no other planet (yet) seems to have any. We are lucky and blessed to be a part of it all, and I wish we took care of our home and fellow creatures so much better.

What I would have given to be able to dive in and swim alongside them, feel the smooth skin of the rays on mine, search for lobsters and eels hidden in their caves, even glide along with the sharks until we got tired, and decided to finally rest on the sandy bottom.

If they’d had a swim tank, I would have gone right in, clothes and all. What a time that would have been! I don’t think I would have felt afraid really, not of those animals, just curious and simply in awe. Maybe one day, when I do finally go back to visit the ocean, I will get to experience something like that.

Me cheesing it up with the Megalodon shark (him I would not want to see alive and kicking)

But I’m also fearful enough to know that Jaws, while just a movie, still represents the danger and unknown that’s as much a part of the ocean as its beauty.

I realized tonight that I like feeling that way, that I can hold awe as well as respect for something, that I don’t take it for granted, feel entitled to it, or even feel perfectly safe with it. Feeling alive is often about feeling the edges, being at the edge, like walking the shoreline as the tide rolls in. I am there but not there, one foot in and one out of the water, waiting to see what happens next.

And until sharks start to walk on land (maybe in a millennia or ten), I’m probably still pretty safe there, too, able to have perspective and just appreciate the view.