The zookeeper was holding a young alligator like a football. She had his tense body tucked under her arm and held his head in her palm. Her other hand rested on his back. He was perfectly still when she began to share alligator facts with a small crowd that gathered around to learn. She related basic alligator facts, like where they live, their size, what they like to eat. Then, she shared a bit about their skin. Not only is it thick and an excellent defense against predators, alligator coloring provides additional protection.
She asked kids what an alligator might look like from the air. It is darker and mottled, like the top of murky water glinting in the sun or leafy swampy woods. He would be very difficult to see from a bird of prey’s point of view. Likewise, a predator low in the water would look up to a pale underbelly and find it indiscernible against the light of the sky. From the top and from the bottom, an alligator is a master of disguise. But what about when meeting one head on? That’s why it has a strong whipping tail and rows of razor sharp teeth set in a spring-like jaw. The zookeeper concluded her talk and put the alligator back into a long dark green Coleman cooler, creating a perfect scenario where through a series of mishaps, the cooler gets switched with someone’s picnic.
The ballroom on the bottom of the beautiful briny sea could easily be lit by volunteer sardines and herring. I read about them and other invisible fish in a New York Times article called A World of Creatures That Hide in the Open. They are the disco balls of the undersea world. NYT writer Kenneth Chang:
“The silvery sides of fish like herring and sardines are systems of mirrors: They reflect the downwelling light, much the way a part of the sky is sometimes reflected by a glass skyscraper and blends into the rest of the sky. Thus, a predator from below would see the blue water, not a fish, swimming above.”
The article states a researcher named Eric Denton discovered the mirrors covering fish are vertical, enhancing the effect. I have one of these vertical mirrors on the back of my bathroom door and it enhances nothing. There are days I wish it could cause me to disappear for a bit. Given an ocean under a dome of blue sky, the elongated mirrors on certain fish enhance survival.
Along with mirrored fish, oceans are packed with translucent creatures. A Duke professor named Dr. Sonke Johnsen noted 20 to 90 percent of light went filtered through a variety of sealife. “You could read a book through these animals,” he said. I wonder if anyone has tried to read a book through the lens of another creature’s body? If so, I wish I knew what book it was. Moby Dick, maybe? Jaws? The Old Man and the Sea? Personally, I’d read Life of Pi.
Some fish are gifted with counterillumination, which is a glow produced by chemicals the animal aims down through lenses and mirrors. These are different from the tiled herring and sardines, in that the light is self-generated and in perfect balance with the surroundings.
Of course, none of these methods are flawless. While their biology protects them well, it can betray them, too. When a transparent animal eats, the food doesn’t magically disappear. It is suspended in the stomach and bowels for all the sea to see. It’s like Wonder Woman in her completely pointless invisible jet. You can’t see the jet. You see a woman squatting in the sky.
What passes over me and below me? What is lurking in the dregs of the dark seeping waters I tread? Raptors circle circle circle above. My spirit is set with a series of reflectors and mottling, yet scars and the ostentatious coloring of mistakes I foolishly cling to threaten to wreck my hiding places. Anything garish attracts unwanted attention. I try to deploy camouflage on my own. I try to be very, very still. But I get hungry and distracted. I turn my head and it’s too late. I’ve been spotted.
I flash out when trouble nears, praying I’ll catch my ever-shining Father’s reflection. Trouble flees, or at least feels quizzical. Where did she go? Let’s wait, trouble says. She will get hungry again. We’ll be able to see what’s inside then and only then.