Sea otters and dolphins help fill gaps in my time

by Libby Olbrantz
for The Beacon

SHEDD AQUARIUM is an indoor public aquarium in Chicago. Opened on May 30, 1930, the 5 million US gal aquarium was for some time the largest such indoor facility in the world. Today it holds some 32,000 animals. – photos by Libby Olbrantz

The first time I ever went to the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago was in sixth grade. I’ve been wanting to go back for some time now. When my boyfriend, Prakash, wanted to surprise me for my birthday this year, I was ecstatic!

The day was sunny and cool, Lake Michigan was that beautiful, tropical turquoise color it becomes when the sun shines directly through its blue waters.

Prakash booked tickets a month in advance because of everything with COVID right now, there are only so many tickets. Everything was according to time. We wouldn’t be able to enter until our reserved time and we only had a 30 minute window after our tickets would no longer be accepted because of safety protocols. We arrived on time, surprised a line of 50 people were ahead of us with the same window of time.

Upon entering you get a sense that the experience might be a bit different this time: the main entrance is closed, you now enter through a side door and there are employees throughout the maze of hallways to guide you.

When you’re finally inside you feel a surprising sense of familiarity that came with any main attraction in a tourist location pre-COVID: large families pushing strollers and flocks of screaming kids.

I hadn’t realized I’d been locked inside so long for the last year that this was the most shocking thing to adjust to in the day, “what? People nearby me? Get back!! Sound the alarms!!! Oh, they’re wearing a mask? Okay, cool, let’s goo!!!”

And we did, we headed straight for the Oceanarium done up in a style reflecting the Pacific Northwest. We descended the stairs lined with pine trees and fish tanks until we were underground, alongside the captivating beluga whales. Mother and child swam together in formation, making their rounds alongside the main window.

I was excited to see Prakash’s reactions as his first visit to an aquarium, as though to feel like I’m able to see it all for the first time again, like through my own childlike eyes. We sat alongside them and watched with awe and wonder. How can this creature exist on the same planet? How can I be so disconnected from another life form and yet, empathize with it similarly in this moment?

We moved around the corner to the sea otters. How playful! These are the most amazing creatures to watch play around in the water, to watch them feel their complete form as it fills the water. They are truly at ease in their own skin, unaware of anything around them other than the freedom they exude while floating and paddling around on their backs. I always say my dog Smooch is my spirit animal, but if Smooch has a spirit animal, for sure it’s the sea otter.

The amphitheater that once staged the dolphin show was now roped off and very few people could enter at a time. It made for amazing photographs with Lake Michigan in the background and the dolphins peaking their bodies out of the water every couple minutes, but it was sad to know we won’t be able to see them fully perform at all. This was a time when I felt I wanted to go back to sixth grade and relive the dolphin show I saw back then, because that had been one of my favorite memories.

We spent the next few hours weaving in and out of various exhibits: lying in front of the shark tank, standing over the sting rays, and staring in wonder at the jellyfish and seahorses.

The last spot was the Caribbean Reef where we watched large leaves of lettuce drop from the heavens into the tank to feed the green sea turtle.

Her name is Nickel, named for the coin found in her esophagus when they rescued her. She has buoyancy problems due to a boating collision near her home in Florida, but it’s truly inspiring to watch her swim gracefully to the depths to retrieve each wayward leaf.

I knew going back that it might be a mixed bag of nostalgia, but that’s what’s so intriguing about time and space, you never know if any space will really feel the same as the original time you spent in it.

The whole experience reminded me of a quote from Brooklyn DJ, Nicolas Jaar, “I’ve watched Jurassic Park twice in my life – once when I was six and the second time a couple of weeks ago. It inspired me to think about how gaps in time change our way of perceiving.” I felt this reflected exactly what I was feeling in those moments going back.

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