“Emily’s Day at the Aquarium”

Natalie Bradfield

All rights reserved by the author



Melody’s daughter’s curiosity always seemed to impress dinner guests and strangers Melody didn’t even know.  But for Melody, dealing with little Emily’s never-ending questions was tiresome.  The questions ranged from why white was one of the four Play-doh colors, why she saw dots when she spun around in circles real fast with her eyes closed, and why her pet hamster would not stop running in its wheel.  As Melody was frantically searching for her phonebook of babysitters, Emily peeked around the corner to the kitchen with her bright eyes wide open.  Melody knew she was in for another round of curious questions.

While tugging on Melody’s shirt wide-eyed, red-haired Emily asked, “ Mommy why do clownfish have stripes?” 

Melody calmly replied, “Sweetheart, now is not the time for questions.  Mommy is late for work.  You know that today is the grand opening of the coral reef exhibit at the aquarium.  I have spent months preparing it.” 

Melody’s worked at the aquarium as marine biologist.  Through an important research grant she was awarded, the aquarium was able to build the exhibit as the site for her research.  Turning around, Melody continued searching for her phonebook.  Her babysitter had just cancelled at the last minute.  Melody checked the clock, and realized she was already late.  She went to the coat closet and grabbed her and Emily’s coats.  The questions continued all the way out the door, as Melody struggled to keep Emily still enough to put on her jacket. 

Finally situated in the car, Melody heads towards the aquarium.  With no other options, she had no choice but to take Emily to work, and hope she stayed out of trouble.  As in most cases when running late, Melody got stuck in a traffic jam.  They were now facing a complete standstill on the highway that looked as though it would never end.  Emily turned to her mom and asks, “Mommy do clownfish have families?” 

Seeing no way out of answering the question, Melody attempted to answer her daughter.  “Emily, clownfish live in tropical water, like the new exhibit at the aquarium.  They live in sea anemones.” 

Emily replied, “Oh, but I thought sea anemone sting things like jellyfish do.” 

Melody answered, “Well they do.  Clownfish are special and can resist getting hurt by the stings.  Clownfish can live in a group of two to six fish in a sea anemone.  I guess that would be their family.” 

Emily asked, “Why two to six clownfish?  Do they have a mommy and daddy?”

Melody said, “The largest two clownfish are the mommy and daddy.  The biggest one is the mommy, the next biggest is the daddy, and the remaining four clownfish are smaller.” 

Emily looking puzzled asked, “Why are they different sizes?” 

Melody answered, “The clownfish are different sizes because it is part of their community structure.  That means that the sizes keep the fish from fighting over food and having problems in the group.  Just like with me and you, I am bigger than you; therefore, you must listen to me.”  

Emily sat quiet for a little bit and thought.  After about ten minutes Emily asked, “Well what if the mommy gets hurt or dies, what do the clownfish do?  Why isn’t the daddy taller than the mommy like how daddy is taller than you?”

Melody thought for a moment about how to explain the dynamics of size modifications and sex changes in clownfish to her seven-year-old daughter.  Finally she answered, “The daddy would grow to the size that the mommy was, and he will become the mommy.  Clownfish are special and can change whether they are boys or girls.  Then the next biggest clownfish would grow to be the size the daddy was, and become a boy clownfish.  In the ocean, where clownfish can be eaten, being able to change when problems happen help the clownfish to work together as a group to survive.  Does that make sense?” 

Emily nodded.  Then she asked, “But why is the mommy bigger?”

Melody thought again.  She said, “The mommy is bigger so that the daddy knows she is the one in charge.  That way daddy will listen to mommy, and not work so much at the police department like your daddy.  That way the mommy and little clownfish can see their daddy more.”

Emily quietly asked, “Mommy why don’t human daddies become mommies when they the mommies die?  Why can’t Sara have a mommy too?”

Emily’s friend Sara had just lost her mother to cancer the month before.  Emily was having trouble dealing with Sara’s loss because she didn’t get to see Sara very much anymore.  Sara spent a lot of time at her Grandma’s home.  Melody answered, “Because with humans, like Sara’s daddy, the daddy takes on the roles of both daddy and mommy.  People try their best to live their life when someone dies; at first it is very hard.  But Sara’s mommy is always watching over her from heaven helping her daddy raise Sara.”

The car was quiet for a few minutes as Emily thought over what she had just learned.  Much to Melody’s approval, the cars had begun to move and they were on their way again to the aquarium.  Emily had fallen asleep for the remainder of the ride, thinking of how she would ask Santa for a clownfish for Christmas.

At the aquarium, Melody and Emily hurried in the entrance to Melody’s office.  Melody told Emily to stay in the office and play with some of the books and color while she went to find her boss.  Melody’s boss was a man named Mr. Stanley Ray.  He had the reputation of being just as nasty as a stingray.  His coworkers had secretly nicknamed him Mr. Ray the Stinger because of how unpleasant he could act.   Realizing she was late to work and well past the ribbon cutting ceremony for the new coral reef extension to the aquarium, Melody rushed down the hallways of the aquarium in search of Mr. Ray.  As she rounded the corner of the jellyfish tanks just before the reef exhibit, she caught sight of him by recognizing his straggly old body and walking cane. 

He came up to her and impatiently stated, “I need you to move the fish from the remaining exhibits into the large exhibit in the center of the aquarium and divide the tank into compartments using temporary barriers.  I need to move the exhibit into the exhibit next-door. We had a power failure in the new coral reef extension and the power supply has to come from the other exhibits.  The power from the exhibits you are moving will be redirected to the emergency construction equipment.  We are going to lose tons of money.  The aquarium will have to be shut down today and hopefully this can be taken care of quickly.  Hurry and get the exhibits moved, I need that power!” 

To Melody’s surprise Mr. Ray never noticed she was late to work.  He was so flustered with the problem at hand he could see nothing but disaster.  Unfortunately, in his panic, he had given her an impossible amount of work to do.  The power failure to the new exhibit demanded that the exhibits all be moved into the large central tank.  By subdividing the large central tank and neighboring tank, the species at the aquarium could survive in close proximity for the day while the heat and water pump energy from smaller exhibits would be used to perform emergency repairs on the new section of the aquarium.  In the mess of things, Melody sent Jimmy, a tour guide, to watch Emily. 

After a while, Emily’s curiosity got the best of her.  She wandered out of the office and into the hallways of the aquarium.  She looked at the fish exhibits searching for the clownfish.  She remembered that they live in tropical water, so she followed the signs to the new exhibit.  She noticed the construction equipment and decided to explore what the commotion is about.  After a few hours of wandering around asking the repairmen a multitude of questions, Emily decided she is hungry.  She discovered the closed snack shop, and let herself in.  After finding some nachos and a soda, Emily sat down on the floor inside the snack shop hut and took a nap. 

Meanwhile Jimmy, the tour guide Melody had sent unsuccessfully to watch Emily a few hours earlier, and Melody were searching everywhere for Emily.  It was time to go home and she was nowhere to be found.  Melody calls her husband at work, and gets his answering machine.  His name was Joe and he was a police officer at the local police department.  He had left her a message earlier about stopping by at the exhibit to pick up Emily over his lunch break.  Melody assumed she must be with him since she is unable to be found in the aquarium. She headed home in a hurry to escape her, who was furious that the new coral reef exhibit was still not fixed.

Shortly after everyone in the aquarium had left, Emily woke up.  She walked around looking for her mom.  Pretty quickly she figured out that no one is there, so she decided to look around.  She noticed that the large central tank and the neighboring tank are housing all of the aquatic species.  She also noticed planks that ran along the top of the tank, that were used by caretakers to feed the fish from above.  The planks were also the location of the glass-like dividers that came in and out of them like windows do in a car.  A patron of the aquarium designed the dividers years ago.  He was the founder of a car company in the same city as the aquarium, and he was a millionaire.  He had always loved aquariums and donated large sums of money to Melody’s.  In exchange for his gifts he was given the honor of designing many aspects of the aquarium.  He was insistent that dividers, similar to car windows, be used.  Each divider had a ledge added to the bottom that served as a shelf for lowering items to the base of the aquarium as well.  Even though the invention showed little practical use, in rare incidents they came in handy. 

Emily inched across the plank to get a closer look at the fish.  She slipped, and her shoe fell into the tank and onto the bottom ledge on a divider separating two exhibits in the large tank.  She walked off the plank and decided to look for a button to move the divider.  She had seen her mom use buttons before at the aquarium to move dividers, just not on the large tank before.  She eventually found the control center for the dividers.  She started pushing buttons hoping that the one with her shoe stuck on it will come up.  Finally on the last button left the correct divider came out of the water and Emily and got her shoe back.  Emily was so happy; she had just gotten these shoes for her birthday. 

All of the sudden Emily looked down.  She noticed that the tank no longer had dividers.  In a panic Emily hit all of the buttons at once and blew a fuse that operated the control box.  Being seven years old Emily had no idea what had just happened.  She began to cry.  She was alone in the aquarium, and now she had ruined all of the work her mother had spent the day doing.  Not only had she pulled out the dividers but also the fish had started to eat each other.  At least the coral reef exhibit was still separated from the large tank.  As Emily had begun to head back to her mother’s office, she heard a loud crack.  The fish were slamming themselves against the glass that separated the tanks, in an attempt to break the glass.  Emily ran away crying and hid in the snack shop.  She cried herself to sleep because she knew she has made a huge mistake. 

When Melody reached home her husband Joe greeted her.  They quickly learned that neither had Emily, so they headed back to the aquarium.  A flat tire and fourteen red lights later they reached the aquarium.  Feeling completely like bad parents, they searched all over the aquarium for their daughter.  When they passed the large tank, Melody noticed that many of the fish are floating on top dead.  They had been stung by the rare collection of jellyfish that the aquarium owns.  Melody fainted.  Panicking, Joe tried for the next twenty minutes to revive his wife.  Finally, she woke up.  Melody went to find Emily while Joe tried pathetically to fix the tank.  His police officer training didn’t cover this. 

Many of the fish had been killed, and the water temperature within the tank had been elevated since the adjoining tank that held the coral reef exhibit had flown into the central tank.  The mixing of the two tanks occurred when the fish had successfully smashed the glass divider between the two tanks.  Joe added a makeshift divider to the smaller tank that held the coral reef exhibit.  He designed it by cutting up some metal he found at the coral reef exhibit.  He turned this exhibit into a cool water exhibit and moved species that cannot survive in warm waters.  He did his best to distinguish between the fish, as he racked his mind to remember the bits of knowledge he had picked up from his wife.  Joe determined that the large tank dividers are malfunctioning, since he was unaware that the fuse blew and also has no knowledge of how they work in the first place.  The large tank contained the remaining species from the coral reef exhibit, the jellyfish, and some fish that Joe was unsure whether they were warm-water or cold-water fish. 

Morning arrived with the aquarium a wreck.  Innumerable amounts of fish were killed the previous night, and Emily was still missing.  Mr. Stanley Ray arrived at the aquarium and he was met by Melody.  Melody was in tears and asked to resign from her job because of the horrible tragedy that has occurred.  Mr. Ray, in shock at the disaster, left the aquarium and took the day off.  Employees of the aquarium were informed to not come to work this week, and that the aquarium may be shutting down totally.  Melody finally found Emily in the snack shop when she heard the munching noises coming out of it.  She, Emily, and Joe all traveled home.  A few caretakers of the aquarium remained on staff to keep the remaining fish alive. 

 A month went by and decisions by the board of trustees were being made.  The aquarium had been considered bankrupt, and would be closing.  Melody and Emily returned to the aquarium to move Melody’s personal belongings out of her office.  Emily took a walk and looked at the fish.  Emily noticed something very strange.  The clownfish within the coral reef exhibit had become abnormally large.  Emily sat and thought.  She remembered that the fish became bigger when the largest one dies.  But Emily thought again, because these fish were larger than the largest clownfish she had ever seen.  Another peculiarity had arisen in little Emily’s mind.  The clownfish were not living in sea anemone anymore.  The clownfish also were extremely plentiful, unlike the remaining species that were dying off.  Emily ran to find her mother to see if she could explain what was happening.

Emily took Melody to the tank and showed her the large clownfish.  Emily asks, “Mommy are the clownfish so large because they don’t have any predators left to eat them?  Is it because they can eat as much as they want and have lots of space to live?  Is it because they don’t have to be scared of other mean fish and can live outside of sea anemone?” 

Melody looked at the tank in disbelief.  Her daughter’s accident in killing all of the fish had actually made a scientific discovery about clownfish.  Clownfish will grow to become very large if they are living within a predator-free environment with plenty of nutrients and space.  Not only that, but they remained living in small groups, similar to how whales live in pods, even though they no longer lived in sea anemone.  Groups of two to six clownfish, all with size modifications, maintaining their community structures even without though they all were living freely in the same waters.  Melody answers, “Yes sweetie, that is why they are abnormally big.” 

Melody called Mr. Ray on the phone and tells him of the discovery.  She proposed the idea of marketing the phenomena of large clownfish communities to bring tourism and money to the aquarium.  Then the employees could have their jobs back and the aquarium won’t be bankrupt.  Mr. Ray hurries over to the aquarium and agrees with Melody’s suggestion. 

For her discovery, Emily was given credit to the discovery that was later studied by biologists around the world.  For the new discovery, the aquarium became famous attracting tourists and scientists.  Emily was rewarded with a class fieldtrip for her entire class to the aquarium to see her clownfish.  Sometimes discoveries in science happen through accidents, but the best way to learn is to keep questioning.

            As Emily and her class left the aquarium, the little clownfish had turned to its mommy, swimming round and round with excitement, and asked, “Mommy, I have another question.  Why do humans dress in different colors and, why did so many little humans stare at me today?”

The largest clownfish of that family answered, “Darling, not today.  How about we answer more questions tomorrow.  I have already answered over a hundred today.”  The curiosity of her little clownfish daughter had started to wear on her nerves.  It was only lunchtime and her head was spinning with the never-ending questions.  The mommy clownfish led her family of six clownfish over to the north side of the tank to visit a five clownfish family who had just lost their mother clownfish.  With her she brought a funeral present, and a gift for the father’s successful transformation to becoming a female.  Her daughter swam around her in circles the whole way asking questions tirelessly, well at least tirelessly for the daughter.  


© 2003 by the author

All rights reserved