On my recent vacation, I had the opportunity to encounter some delightful earthbound aliens. We entered a long barn-like structure to view hundreds of plastic tubs in rows, full of water. The babies, so small and numerous, were simply called “fry,” like the young of any other aquatic species. I suppose you might call them cute–if you’re into tiny, wriggling worms.
In the “paternity suite” close by, we experienced their true nature. As we approached the tanks, they rose to the surface in small groups–six or eight occupy each tank, but they often travel in pairs. They’re monogamous, you see. At the surface of the water, they stared up with dark, shining eyes as if eager to see us, their mouths opening and closing in a silent song of welcome, their tiny head-mounted fins waving to keep them in place or move them about. Seahorses.
These curious creatures of the sea are rarely seen in the wild, thanks to massive overfishing to supply household and commercial aquariums, and to use in traditional Chinese medicine (where, like so many other endangered species, they are said to be an aphrodisiac). The Ocean Rider Seahorse Farm is breeding domestic seahorses to try to fill the demands of the trade, and return many of them to their wilderness habitat. Yep, didn’t know anything about this until we visited their facility in Kona, Hawaii.
For some odd reason, my dad had a little collection of dried sea creatures that fascinated me as a child–among them a yellow box fish and a tiny seahorse. So the opportunity to see them up close made the rather expensive tour seem worth it. I did not know when I signed on that it would be one of the most moving alien encounters I would ever experience.
When an author is creating alien or fantasy creatures, there is a constant balancing act between making them engaging to the reader, and making them still feel alien. The seahorses manage this beautifully. With their bizarre appearance, prehensile tails, wavering head-fins and pouch-fitted fathers, they definitely look like creatures from the great beyond. They are predators (one of the things that makes them hard to keep in captivity) stalking the sea grass for tiny shrimp to devour. But they also pair-bond, and will pine away if separated from their mate.
As they bob about in their tanks, they often run into one another, sometimes by direction, sometimes apparently by accident, and seize each other with their curling tails. They then move together, inseparable, sometimes in clumps of a half-dozen at a time–an act hard not to take as affection, especially in light of their monogamous nature. When one of them decides it’s time to leave the party, he must struggle mightily to shake free of the others’ embrace.
If you experience any sort of sympathy with others, and are, like most people, the sort to project even onto the animal kingdom, it’s very hard not to read yourself into the lives of the seahorses, strange as they are. I think one of the reasons we keep pets is to have this kind of experience–the recognition of sentience–feeling–in a creature so clearly different from oneself. We enjoy learning to understand and communicate with these other species, and, once in a while, have that sudden warping of the mind in which we can envision what life is like for the other: how are we alike? how are we different? An experience that enriches both life, and fiction.