As a youngster I was desperate for sea monkeys. These cute pets were advertised in American superhero comics for a dollar. Yes, just one dollar. If I had had any idea how to get my hands on a dollar bill and mail it overseas, I could have been the proud owner of… Oh, hang on, I’m forgetting about return postage.
Even since I can remember I always wanted a sea horse, probably because you could keep it in a goldfish bowl and didn’t need a field. I must have heard about them before having any real idea of what they looked like. In a book about the Sea I discovered sea dragons, incredible filigree-like creatures related to sea horses. And zebra fish – so called because they sported handsome black and white stripes and had deadly poison spines that only added to the attraction.
At some point I heard about sea hares, sea bears, sea calves, sea elephants and sea lions – though I must have surely known what they were. To my childish mind it seemed any animal could be made aquatic by simply by shoving the word ‘sea’ in front of its name. I became obsessed with having a zoo in a fish-tank, with sea monkeys in pride of place.
Before long I learned about all sorts of mermen and mermaids. There was even a picture of one called the Feejee Mermaid; so they had to be real. By this time I was hitting puberty. As the hormones raged, megalomania kicked in. No longer content with a zoo, I wanted a whole sea-vilisation.
It must have been around this time I heard of sea monks and sea bishops. Perhaps if I had a sea monastery my little pets could pray for my immortal soul. Believe me that felt like a big deal to a twelve year old recently lapsed altar-boy struggling with Catholic guilt.
As I got older it wasn’t only religion I started to doubt. It seemed sea hares were just sea slugs. Sea bears weren’t real either. I would like to pretend I’d learned about them from the Hans Christian Anderson story, but it was more likely Spongebob Squarepants. Sea calves and sea elephants were simply things an old Roman writer put in his book called ‘Natural History’ – an all together misleading title. He would have been better off calling it ‘It’s-All-Made-Up’, or even ‘Credulous’ if he wanted something more snappy.
I fared no better with my sea people. The Feejee mermaid was the top half of a mummified monkey stitched to the rear of a dried fish. Sea Bishops were deliberate frauds made from dried skates and rays. Of sea monks there was no trace. With them went my last shot at heaven – oh well at least I’d be with all my mates.
Based on these disappointments I began to wonder if sea monkeys were everything they were cracked up to be. If they were so fabulous, why was there just an artist’s impression of the adorable little critters?
Around this time I seem to remember seeing a photograph of sea monkeys – not monkeys at all, but tiny transparent brine shrimps. They probably started including a photo after receiving thousands of complaints from parents demanding to know why they were sending their children what could only be described as aquatic lice.
Sea monkeys were a scam targeting kids. You got shrimp eggs in a salt and yeast solution that turned tap-water brackish allowing the little creatures to live, while the living yeast provided microscopic food. Sometimes you also got a type of dye which the creatures absorbed colouring them for better visibility; for although boiling turned them coral pink, they died in the process.
Though my childhood dreams were crushed, my megalomania persisted. But these days, the goldfish bowl sea-cieties of my fevered imagination only exist on the written page.