The invention of the aquarium transformed the way humans think about the ocean

The secret lives of fish.
The secret lives of fish.
Image: Reuters/Pichi Chuang
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

For most of human history, people knew very little about what was happening beneath the ocean’s surface. Ancient myths and sailors’ yarns depicted the sea as both a source of life and a foreboding world teeming with Krakens, hydras, and other monstrous creatures.

But with the invention of the first diving helmets and suits in the early 19th century, people finally had a chance to get a good look at underwater life. It wasn’t long before naturalists and scientists came up with the idea of using aquariums to allow the public to similarly observe animals up close–in the process forever changing the way we think about marine life.

One of the first aquariums was created by French marine biologist Jeannette Power de Villepreux. Around 1830, she was conducting research on argonauts, also known as paper nautiluses, in Messina, Sicily. Power had a special wooden box constructed in which she kept the animals brought to her by fishermen. Her laboratory by the sea used rubber hoses to pump salt water in and out of one such box, creating an efficient circulation system. As a result of her observations, Power discovered that argonauts grew their own paper-thin shells—solving a mystery that had baffled scientists.

A few years later, English naturalist Philip Henry Gosse introduced and eventually popularized the idea of using glass tanks to observe marine animals and aquatic plants, coining the word “aquarium” in the process. A deeply religious man (he was part of a Christian group called the Brethrens), Gosse believed that exploring nature was a spiritual exercise.

Gosse’s 1854 book, The Aquarium: An Unveiling of the Wonders of the Deep Sea, describes his observations of coastal life and explains how to build a miniature ocean in one’s own home. Understanding that plants were necessary to keep the tank supplied with oxygen, Gosse recommended looking for them on the day after a full moon, when the tide would be as far out as possible and areas usually covered with water became visible. Thanks to his book, collecting animals on the shore and keeping them at home became a widespread fad that soon found its way to other European countries and North America.

The trend was further bolstered in the US with the publication of Henry D. Butler’s The Family Aquarium in 1858. Butler was less inspired by religious impulses; for him, the aquarium represented an extraordinary combination of science and art. He considered it the best of 19th-century innovations, just as important as the telescope or the microscope.

By this time, all kinds of pumps and aerators were available to supply oxygen in aquariums, and aquarists had developed a better feeling for which animals would be well-matched in the tanks. Hobby naturalists began to understand that aquariums had both an educational function and a calming effect in the home, offering people a rare way to bring a piece of nature inside crowded, polluted cities.

A few years later, the first public aquariums began presenting ocean life on a much larger scale. In 1857, the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, DC, set up an aquarium featuring “about three hundred specimens of animal vitality, belonging to some thirty-eight species of fishes, Molluscae, Crustacea, and Polypes,” as the Washington Union reported at the time.

Two years later, the Aquarial Gardens were opened on Bromfield Street in Boston. Approximately 40 basins were arranged in a circle on pedestals to form a large aquarium panorama. On display were animals ranging from starfish, jellyfish, crabs, and sea anemones to sunfish, sticklebacks, and a few turtles. A creature sensationally advertised as a “man-eating shark” was featured for a short while. Apparently it did not survive very long—a problem that continues to plague aquariums today.

Aquariums that completely surrounded visitors, such as the one constructed for the 1867 World Exhibition in Paris, were visually stunning but burdened by construction and security problems. The New York Aquarium opened in 1876, on the corner of 35th Street and Broadway. There were sea lions, seals, and sharks, but its major attraction was the presence of small whales (most likely belugas).

As one might guess, the task of bringing the animals into the aquarium was quite a challenge. While the New York Aquarium used salt water was brought from nearby Sandy Hook, New Jersey, the whales were caught near Isle-aux-Coudres, a Quebec island on the Saint Lawrence river. After being trapped in a bay, they were placed in large wooden boxes stuffed with algae and transported into the city on special boats, wagons, and trains. “The boxing and transportation to New York of these big fish was a great labor, and it often took fifty strong men several hours to get one of the monsters into its traveling case,” W. C. Coup writes in Sawdust & Spangles (1901). Showcasing such large animals, therefore, was a major coup for the aquarium, and put other venues on the spot. Soon aquariums were all competing to feature the biggest animals, strangest creatures and largest water tanks.

The public’s desire to get up close and personal with marine life prompted businesses to go to further and further extremes. The beginnings of Sea World parks can be traced back to a facility opened in 1938 in St. Augustine, Florida. It was originally designed for making underwater films, but soon its bottlenose dolphins, sawfish, sea turtles, sharks, manta ray, and penguins began to attract curious visitors. The park’s founders decided to adapt the facility for public viewing, ushering in an era in which the public was unsatisfied with merely viewing sea life. Now audiences were eager for the excitement of witnessing marine animals’ staged, orchestrated interactions with trainers—and, sometimes, with visitors themselves.

But as the recent controversy surrounding Sea World’s treatment of orcas has shown, there are downsides to using aquariums and oceanariums to explore the underwater realm. Nearly all wildlife in marine aquariums—both private and public ones—is captured from coral reefs in the Philippines, Indonesia, and a number of other countries. Traders often use cyanide in order to numb the fishes and “harvest” them, upsetting the ecological balance and creating irrevocable harm to the animals (and often to the fishermen as well). And as a 2003 United Nations report (PDF) reveals, many animals do not survive the transport.

However, there are a number of socially conscious ways to let people explore the wonders of the deep. “Nanoaquariums,” a more recent innovation, are tiny aquariums that feature smaller, usually neglected animals like shrimp. Not only are they much cheaper to operate than conventional aquariums, making them a popular alternative for homes, the animals they contain are bred in captivity. Procuring them therefore has a much lower ecological cost and is not dependent on traders.

Underwater documentaries also provide a much more authentic glimpse into the submarine world than aquariums. At their best, they show the coexistence between different species and offer vivid evidence of the interdependence of life in the oceans—a much-needed understanding in light of the ecological menace that they face.

Meanwhile, advanced scuba-diving simulations using virtual reality represent an entirely new category of underwater experience that goes beyond capturing sights and sounds. A program called “Amphibian,” designed by the MIT Media Lab, helps engage additional senses and the feeling of weightlessness to make the experience more lifelike and satisfying.

Maintained responsibly, aquariums can still offer us a small glimpse into a world very different from our own. But we should also remember that, despite our natural curiosity, there are some elements of the underwater world that cannot be seamlessly imported into our lives. Let the ocean keep some of its mysteries.