The aquarium at La Rochelle is a large glass-fronted building on the Quai Louis Prunier. You can’t miss it. Even if you try.
Common to most modern aquariums, there was the opportunity to walk through a glass tunnel while fish swirled all around you; there were sharks; there was a sawfish who looked like it had a nice smiley face when it turned belly-up; and there were some mean-looking conger eels.
However, it was none of these underwater star-turns, which most captivated me. I found myself enthralled by a shallow tank, close to the entrance, which contained two cuttlefish.
I couldn’t recall having seen cuttlefish in an aquarium before. I’d found plenty of hard, white cuttlebones washed up on beaches; fed several of them to a recalcitrant budgie, which belonged to an old aunt, when I was a child; never seen a living specimen before.
I don’t know whether it was because I already knew that cuttlefish were meant to be very intelligent––possessing one of the largest brain-to-body ratios of all invertebrates––but I felt that the two cuttlefish were observing me, as interested as I was in observing them. A meeting of equals? Maybe, until…
The two cuttlefish continued to watch me––their distinctive W-shaped pupils never once veering away; never once distracted. They floated effortlessly; the merest tremor through the skirts of their mantle the only suggestion of movement. What were they thinking? What were they thinking about me?
A sudden flash of colour. Brilliant iridescent green, just for a second, illuminating the small creature’s entire mantle. A colour repeated in the other cuttlefish, as though in reply. What did it mean? It was clear that they were communicating about me. Assessing me. Critical of me.
A meeting of equals? I don’t think so.
I felt hugely inferior; fled to the simpleton smile of the sawfish, who just seemed pleased to see me.