Visiting Sea Life
I Can't Go Snorkeling, So I Look for an Aquarium
I can't go snorkeling or scuba diving, nor do I have an underwater camera, and I like to take pictures of fish, so I look for an aquarium.
Ever since I went to the New England Aquarium, I have wished for a really good aquarium in Arizona, close enough to visit. We finally got a small one near Tucson, the one at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. It has species from the lakes and streams of the Sonoran Desert, and the fish and other inhabitants of the Sea of Cortez, which is right smack dab in the middle of the lower portion of the desert. However, it is still very small, under a dozen tanks, and although I really enjoy going there, I wanted to find a bigger aquarium. Then one day, a friend of mine commented there was an aquarium in Phoenix. I hadn't heard that; last I'd looked, I didn't think there were any. But I looked again, and lo and behold, they have TWO in the Phoenix area. I chose the less expensive and closer of the two to start.
Learn more about Sea Life
I was able to get what they call a Twilight Ticket online. This ticket only costs $12 for adults, and you can only purchase it online. You specify the date, and you're stuck with that date. To make absolutely sure I would be able to use the ticket, I waited until the day I was going to go, to purchase the ticket, and it worked. I had actually re-scheduled the trip twice.
So on the day I went, which was just a few days ago, I got there about 4:15, just 15 minutes into the time period which lasts until 7:30. It wasn't crowded. I am sure they sell the tickets so they get some people, but I like it not crowded.
Just a couple of things to mention about photography there. When taking pictures of fish in an aquarium, the most important thing is that you don't shoot straight into the tank. You have to use some flash, especially in a place as dark as that one, and if you do, you'll just get your flash and nothing else. I stop down my lens all the way, use fill flash (which is very weak), and then wait patiently until the fish I want is in a good spot and shoot. But remember, the angle of incidence equals the angle of reflection, so always shoot at an angle with respect to the front of the glass. At Sea Life, that can be a bit tricky, however, because many of the tanks have curved fronts, so no matter WHERE you stand, you may not be at a good angle to avoid getting your flash. It takes practice and many shots to get a good one. Fortunately, digital cameras will let you take hundreds of pictures, and that's what it takes.
Come with me and look over my shoulder as I wander through this amazing place.
The place looks like a huge box on the outside. It is painted dark blue with very little decoration. It is part of a large shopping mall. I didn't take any pictures of the facility, because a lot of people are sensitive about you taking pictures of their architectural details and the like. I just concentrated on the fish. But that was what I went for anyway.
This is actually one of a chain, so check online and see if there is one in your area. You might just be lucky!
All photos by me.
Dagnabbit! Look at the lower right hand corner of this photo. If that isn't a Squid from Squidoo, I'll eat my hat! :)
Freshwater FishClick thumbnail to view full-size
Like a Warren
So I get inside the door, and there is this small room with lots of artificial rocks and bumpy irregularities in the walls. There are four freshwater tanks in there, and it's so dark you practically can't even focus on any of the fish. I don't know why it's so much darker than the rest of the place, but it is. I spend a few minutes setting up my camera and deciding which lens to use. I settle on my Tamron macro lens, because it makes the best pictures in the lowest light. I begin to wander. The whole place is intimate, with this bumpy surface, with artificial rocks stuck in here and there, sometimes convenient for sitting for a moment for one reason or another. I'm thinking that this is supposed to look like the bottom of the ocean. Wonder if I am right! There is a winding path that goes around and around, and each aquarium is a different shape from any of the others, except the first four. Very interesting architecture, that. It's great fun just because of the twisty path and all those interesting shapes.
Not long after you leave the freshwater room, you see a big open tank on the left. It's got shallow water, and there are starfish and small fish in there. Periodically, a wave washes through with a whooshing sound. If you try to take a picture before the surface of the water calms down, you will get a wavy image. So I learn how often this happens, and I wait until it is still and quick take a picture before the next wave comes.
There is also a tank that contains a wonderful moray eel. He's at least six feet long, and no matter how hard I try, I can't get a picture of all of him at once.
So after I see a few tanks to the left, take a few pictures, and wander a bit, lo and behold, I see they have a "petting zoo"! Well, I don't suppose that's what you call it, and in fact, they call it a "touch pool," but the idea is that these are tanks that are about waist height or a little lower (so children can participate) and they have mostly starfish in them. Lots of different kinds of starfish. There is an employee in back of them, and she says I am allowed to pick them up. I say, I think I shouldn't disturb them, but I start taking pictures of the Brittle Stars, and they are all holed up in a crevice, and I figure I won't get a good picture that way, so I nudge one of them out, and he goes readily enough. Later on, as it turned out, my best pictures were the ones I took while they were all still in the crevices!
I don't remember when I first figured out that there is one huge aquarium in the "middle", but you keep coming back to it from different sides. It has quite a number of sharks in it. Yes, sharks! They tell me there are 11 species of sharks there. It's not the only tank that has sharks, but it has most of them. The fish all live pretty peacefully with each other, but I see one shark try to nip a bite out of the fin of another, and you can see evidence that it isn't the first time. Some sharks had obviously nipped places. But it doesn't look like a huge deal for the sharks, so I accept that. I am glad for the sharks, because one of my grandkids likes sharks, and I figure I will take back a few pictures for him. But you know what? Sharks are a lot harder to photograph than many other kinds of fish. They move fast, and are usually too far away for the flash to do much good, so I get very few good pictures. Still, it's fun watching them swim around.
Jeweled Moray Eel - Muraena lentiginosaClick thumbnail to view full-size
StarfishClick thumbnail to view full-size
Here's a collection of starfish I found there.
After I take these pictures, and start to move on, the woman behind the petting zoo tanks says I am not supposed to take pictures with flash. I tell her it would be impossible to get pictures without it. I explain fill flash, that the amount of light is kept to a bare minimum. I also explain that the Desert Museum doesn't care if you use flash. I should have also mentioned that the New England Aquarium doesn't, either, but I don't think of that until later. She then says, well look for a sign that says "no flash", and I say OK, and then she says, don't use flash for the red tank. She says, it will be obvious which one that is. And as I go along, I see that it is the ONLY tank that has a sign forbidding the use of flash. I am wondering what was so sensitive to light, and I eventually find out. There is a big octopus in there! He seems to want to hide way up beyond the window on the upper right, and he is moving slowly. I am able to get a creditable picture of one of the anemones in there, without using any flash, but I sure can't get any of the octopus because it keeps moving! Oh well!
The Red Tank
School of Fish?
After wandering awhile, I come to a doorway that leads into a circular room. All around the top of the room, well above eye level, is an aquarium containing hundreds of fish, all the same species. My first impression is that it is a school of fish. On second thought, however, they're not all moving together in the same direction. I think the fact the tank is a complete circle confuses them.
Other places in the area have actual schools of fish, groups that stick together and move together.
It's an interesting room, but I don't think it does what they intended. So I walk through the other door, back into the rest of the maze. The photo is just a few of the fish I saw. Trying to take a good picture of the whole setup would require a fisheye lens, which I don't have.
Schools of Fish - They flock togetherClick thumbnail to view full-size
Mixed Together Indiscriminately
As near as I can tell, the folks who run the aquarium make no attempt to present different collections of fish, such that they are kept together by habitat. Instead, they mix them together. I find Clownfish in many different places, and other species appear in several different places.
Toward the end of my stay, I encounter one of their employees, who points out that there is a Hermit Crab in the tank with the most Clownfish. I can see him, but he is at such a bad angle, practically hidden, that I cannot get a picture of him.
While I attempt to identify species here, the fact that they are mixed together makes it more difficult.
Learn about the fish. For example, study the mouth of the fish. Does it give you a clue as to what they eat? Many colorful fish have very tiny mouths.
Angelfish have small mouths and like to eat small things, like zooplankton, algae, benthic invertebrates; sponges, tunicates, bryozoans, and hydroids. Benthic invertebrates are tiny and live at the lowest level of the water. Tunicates are actually vertebrates. Bryozoans are so tiny they are almost invisible to the naked eye. Butterflyfish are even smaller than angelfish. Surgeonfish and Tangs like to graze on macro-algae.
You will find that the more you know about what you see, the more you enjoy seeing them.
The MixtureClick thumbnail to view full-size
JellyfishClick thumbnail to view full-size
The jellyfish are in a separate room, so to speak. It's a magical place. Each of the species is in a cylindrical tank that runs from floor to ceiling. Colored lights light up the jellies, and these change color. There are sparkles in the floor, and the ceiling has lights that light up these sparkles like little stars, shifting from one color to another.
And it's almost impossible to take decent pictures in there! No matter what angle you use, the cylinder reflects right back at you; you have to stand just right, and it's not obvious how you do that. And it's difficult to focus. And if you do take a picture, the colored light that was illuminating the jellyfish doesn't show up; the jellyfish is just normal jellyfish color.
One jellyfish is off by itself in a separate tank with a fairly flat front, so it doesn't have that problem. But the jellyfish is trying to hide in the corner, and the light-colored frame (with bumps) messes up my exposure. It is fairly challenging to get good pictures of this one as well.
Jellyfish have stingers on the tentacles that emerge from the bell. They inject venom into their victims. Their food is taken into the bell through a hole in the center, and waste products are expelled from the same hole. The tentacles act as a passive net. Jellyfish eat plankton, crustaceans, fish eggs, small fish and other jellyfish.
The SharksClick thumbnail to view full-size
I mentioned this very large aquarium in the middle, where they keep most of the sharks. It is deep and dark for the most part. On the floor of the main part of the aquarium, there is a huge structure that resembles the skeleton of a rib cage, which might be big enough for a small whale, I imagine. You wander around along the winding path until you get fairly far down the path, and there is a tunnel right through the aquarium. You step into the tunnel, and there is water all around you except at the ends. Sharks can swim over and under you, and there is a small side place on the other side from the main area.
The other windows into the main tank are shaped in various ways, and appear in surprising places.
If you try to take pictures of the sharks, it is very difficult because they swim very fast and are quickly out of reach of your flash. And because it is so dark, you can't see them well in your images.
Fortunately, there is another tank which is much smaller. After you go through the tunnel, you see this aquarium, and it is open at the top, unlike most of them. (The others would be open to people who service the fish, apparently from the top, and feed them from there). This one is shallow, and has small sharks and rays. And there are a few other fish. The sharks don't seem to go after the small fish, but they also seem to nip at the rays, at least sometimes. It is fun to watch the rays that are swimming, because their sides undulate, and that's how they move forward. Behind this tank, there is a stairway with a balcony, and you can climb up there and look down on the inhabitants. I quickly learn that taking pictures from above can pose a problem because the surface is turbulent, so you don't get sharp pictures. You can see waves in them. It's a nice effect for a change, though. I go up there and take a few pictures and come back down, because I really want clearer pictures.
Have you been to an aquarium? - Did you enjoy it?
Tell a little about your experience, or why you haven't visited one.
Have you been to an aquarium?
SeahorsesClick thumbnail to view full-size
I come across a tank with four seahorses in it. That's all I can see. One is bright yellow, and the other three are dark brown, and hang out together. I am persuaded these are Lined Seahorses, Hippocampus erectus.
Did you know?
Male seahorses get pregnant and give birth!
Other StuffClick thumbnail to view full-size
When I get to the end of the trail, I enter a large room next to the gift shop. There are couches where I can sit, so being tired, I sit on the couch and go over my pictures to see what I want to try to photograph again. This proves to be a very good idea. After a few minutes' rest, I go back into the exhibit and re-take some photos.
But before I go, I take a look at the tank in that room. Guess what it contained. A couple of LOBSTERS!
What really strikes me about them is that there is no separate head. God just stuck a couple of eyes on the end. :)
Another Collection of Assorted FishClick thumbnail to view full-size
Videos - Almost like being there
Includes one of my favorites, the Clown Triggerfish.
For Further Reading
Selection of Books on Fish from Amazon
Underwater Eden: 365 Days
by Jeffrey L. Rotman
500 Freshwater Aquarium Fish: A Visual Reference to the Most Popular Species
Reef Fish Identification - Tropical Pacific
by Gerald Allen, Roger Steene, Paul Humann, Ned DeLoach
Coral Reef Fishes: Indo-Pacific and Caribbean
by Ewald Lieske, Robert Myers
Time to leave, unfortunately
I hope you enjoyed this virtual visit as much as I enjoyed the real one.
I am adding the names of the creatures as I figure them out. If you know the name of one I haven't named yet, please let me know. Thank you.