Instead of pupfish, the Monterey Aquarium features “The Secret Lives of Seahorses.” In tank after tank, we study the variety of colorful seahorses with their horse heads, kangaroo pouches, grasping monkey tails, and fascinating fins on their upper back resembling wings in motion or tiny translucent outboard motors. Baby seahorses—sea ponies?—resemble floating pieces of human fingernails, but when we look closer, they clearly have the facial and body features of their parents. To produce these stables of baby seahorses, adult male seahorses puff up their bellies as full as they can to attract a female, or as the Aquarium’s sign says coyly, “Size matters.”
However, the best news was finding out that for reproduction, the gender roles are reversed: the female pursues the male for a hook-up and, leaving aside the reversed mechanics of mating, the male will be pregnant for ….two to three weeks. (You can’t have everything, ladies.) Eventually the male seahorse will release 100-200 babies, aided both by muscular contractions to expel them from his pouch, and his previous 200 Lamaze classes. Fewer than five infants of every 1000 survive to adulthood, possibly because seahorses don’t care for their young once born. The females want to go back to work and the males are already planning their next pregnancy.
As I watch the seahorses, I flash back to my grade school days, and finding ads in comic books that shouted: LIVE PET SEAHORSES $1. The ad was usually above the DARLING PET MONKEY $18.95 ad, showing a squirrel monkey in the palm of a human’s hand. (“Simple to care for and train.” “Even likes lollipops.”) I never ordered the seahorses, much less the monkey, because the ad seemed too weird. Besides, how could a seahorse, assuming it survived the postal delivery process, compete with kids who owned dogs, cats, and parakeets? What could I say at “Show and Tell” to one-up my friends’ pets? “These are my pet seahorses. They’re going to die WAY before YOUR pets. I just got them and they have about a year or less to live!”?
The advertised sea horses at least looked real. I also remember an ad for “The Amazing Live Sea-Monkeys,” which showed cartoonish humanoids, apparently naked although private parts were concealed by odd-looking fins and extremities. Judging by their smiles, they enjoyed excellent dental health. The female sea monkey wore lipstick on cosmetically enhanced lips.
Years later I read The Amazing Live Sea-Monkeys were unappealing brine shrimp that hatched within minutes after contact with water. They were the promotion of an inventor and mail-order entrepreneur named Harold von Braunhut [“brown hat”]. He also invented X-Ray Spex (“See through skin! See through clothing!”), Invisible Goldfish (complete with glass bowl, invisible goldfish food and a guarantee their owners would never see them), and Crazy Crabs (pet hermit crabs).
Billions of Sea Monkeys were sold, and apparently some of that fortune was distributed to Aryan Nation, the anti-Semitic, white supremacist group because Mr. Braunhut, possibly from exposure to too much sea brine, was a major supporter and speaker of Aryan Nation. (The “von” was added to make him sound more German.) The Amazing Sea-Monkeys are unfortunately still around today under new ownership, and despite some illustration tinkering, still look pretty Aryan.
What is it about fish that brings out this baser part of man? Even in Florida, there is a popular fish called the Jewfish. Whose brilliant idea was this? It’s huge fish that can grow as long as seven feet and more than 800 pounds. There’s been some speculation the name was originally “Jewel Fish” because its scales glisten and glimmer in bright sunlight. Monterey Aquarium does not carry the Jewfish because of its size, the fact it’s an Atlantic fish, and because there’s no rabbi on staff.
Fortunately or not, the American Fisheries Society, acting on a request from Florida State officials, changed the name to “Goliath groupers.” Monterey Aquarium was not fooled by this name change—they still won’t carry the fish.
There’s still a problem, though. A bridge crossed by Florida marathon runners is called Jewfish Creek Bridge. Jewfish is also the name of an unincorporated community in Monroe County, Florida, located in the upper Florida Keys on Key Largo. By some accounts, the town now known as KEY LARGO was called Jewfish until 1921. As a serious movie-goer and fish-phobe, I have to ask myself: If the town’s name had not been changed, would admirers of Humphrey Bogart across the country really have watched him in a Florida Keys-filmed 1948 action-packed movie called “Jewfish”?