The Aquarist

From as early as I can remember, until I was eight or nine, I managed a chain of diverse aquariums along the sandy shore of Watch Hill Cove. The real estate upon which I built my summertime empire is a shallow stretch of sand that appears and disappears according to the tide. Although technically it is a beach, to call it that would be misleading. Even at low tide there is hardly enough space to lie down in the sand. An abrasive cement wall (on which I scraped my knees many times) separates the cove from the road. The coarse, grainy sand and the water are saturated with petrol from the fleet of boats that moor there. It’s not a place for people to sit and sunbathe. It’s almost an accidental strip of sand. Which is perfect because the area is clear for the marine life to flourish and aquarists to hunt and build.

While waiting for my mother to collect me after sailing lessons at the yacht club, I would use my hands to mold dozens of uniquely shaped tanks out of sand and fill them with all the aquatic creatures I could catch. My favorite spot to hunt for sea critters was under a wooden walkway that joined the yacht club to the shore. At low tide, there was barely enough space to stand, and at high tide, I doggy-paddled to stay afloat. The creatures under the walkway were no more exotic than the ones on either side of the six foot walkway, but it was the thrill of the hunt that kept me and my fellow adventurers returning there. A sea snail pulled off one of the wooden pillars supporting the walkway was far more valuable than one found in the open water next to it. Once, I got into a spat with another child over a crab we’d both spotted under the walkway: we both wanted it for our own aquariums. The crab itself was nothing special (in fact, it was missing a pincer), but its origin would make it a prize exhibit in anyone’s collection. During our fight, the crab scuttled out from under the walkway. Now that it was standing on the open sand, it was no longer “special.” We left it there.

When my mother came for me, I would beg her to let me stay longer. I’d spend hours pouring water into my slowly dissolving tanks so that I could continue to marvel at what I had caught. Crabs, hermit crabs, moon jellies, tiny sand-colored shrimp and so many more that I couldn’t identify: crabs with long pointy tails, what looked like baby sharks with leopard print scales, and little fish that jumped high out of the water. Hard shells, beady eyes—they were all so amazingly unlike me. Where were their mouths? How did they talk? Where were their mothers? Questions swam through my mind unanswered, but I was content to watch without knowing. My favorite creature was the hermit crab; small enough to be cute with almost non-existent claws that tickled instead of hurt when they pinched me. I always had at least three tanks devoted to hermit crabs, though I respected the other creatures, too. There was no admission charge to see what I had collected; in fact, I would often stop strangers to give them the VIP tour of my marine world, excitedly lifting up the smaller creatures to their faces and misreading their indulgent smiles as matched curiosity.

My work wasn’t easy—the harbor was chock-full of dangers for a curious explorer—and I suffered many injuries for my passion. My feet were sliced open on countless pieces of rusted metal (thank God for the tetanus shot!), my knees were permanently chafed from kneeling in the sand, and some of the wild creatures I sought to bring back to my aquariums were deadly. On the one occasion that I caught a pink jellyfish, I ended up mincing it with my fishing net in the ensuing excitement. Later, I accidentally rubbed the murder weapon against my leg and was left with a burning and alarmingly itchy sensation that had me rolling around in the sand in an attempt to relieve the pain. I strictly avoided jellyfish after that.

Still, nothing made me feel more at peace than lying on my belly on the floating walkway of the yacht club, gently swaying my net back and forth in the water. Nothing filled me with more adrenaline than crouching in the shallow water like a tiger, feeling the sandy waves wash over my feet. I relished the feeling of the sun beating down on my body, the slippery sunscreen on my skin, and the tastes of sand, salt and petrol in my mouth. I could spend entire days splashing through the water, waiting to find another creature. It instilled me with a patience that nothing else could.

Once I tried to bring a part of my aquarium back home, hoping to make the magic permanent. Peering into the water one afternoon, I impulsively scooped up a hermit crab in a handful of gritty sand and water and ran up to the house with its shell held tight in my hot hand. My bare feet burned as they slammed against the pavement and my breathing was ragged as I forced myself with all the resolve of a seven-year-old to push on. As I ran, I imagined that I could feel its little crustacean heart beating an urgent rhythm into my palm, warning me to get it in water before it died. Images of our future spun wildly around my head, all reliant upon me keeping it alive. Sweeping through the door in a hurricane of sand, seaweed and sunscreen, I grabbed the first container I could find: a fancy glass that was a favorite of my mother’s, much to her chagrin. I slammed it down in the sink and whipped on the tap in a frenzy. Each second that the water took to torrent into the glass seemed like a lifetime. When it was half full, I thumped off the water and emptied my precious cargo into the glass, watching how the shell drifted down to the bottom.

The meager portion of sand I had brought settled, but the crab didn’t emerge from its shell. Panicked, I wracked my brain for what elements of its habitat its new home was lacking. Then it hit me: salt! Grabbing the lighthouse figurine that held our table salt, I sprinkled into the glass what I perceived to be an appropriate amount needed for sea life to prosper. After another hour of careful watching, I was forced to face the fact that the hermit crab was with me no longer, its time of death somewhere along my excited scramble toward my home and away from its. Seeing my distress, my mother offered to buy me a pet hermit crab from a stall at the Providence Mall—a generous offer from her, considering that she sees hermit crabs on the same level as cockroaches. But those domesticated creatures held no interest to me; their shells were painted with obnoxious patterns and they did not know or love Watch Hill Cove like I did. They were pets, not creatures hard won. I think my mother breathed a secret sigh of relief when I declined her offer.

Many years later, before packing up and leaving for college for the first time, I tried to build another aquarium. I called it a tribute to my childhood, though maybe a refusal to grow up and leave home was a more accurate description. I lowered myself gingerly into the sand below, my eyes already tearing from the potency of the petrol. Crouching in the sand made me conscious that I was a good decade older and much less agile than my fellow aquarium-builders. My calves cramped as I squatted, and the sand made everything itch uncomfortably. Creeping toward the water’s edge, I caught a glimpse of a hermit crab scuttling past and almost recoiled in disgust. The thought of picking it up with my clean, bare hand was disturbing and almost beyond comprehension. After a few more moments of crouching just out of reach of the water, the cramping became unbearable and I was forced to stand up. Making as dignified a retreat as I could back towards the safety of the walkway, I heard splashing and a cry of triumph as a young girl grasped the hermit crab. But I felt nothing; I was ready to depart for my new home.

 

If you are considering entering the aquarium business and would like some advice on how to get started, send Sky an email at schuyler.ritchie@yale.edu.

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