By KC Cole

I began one recent day with a visit to the Long Beach Aquarium, where the tanks and ponds were filled with the strangest creatures on this -- or any other -- planet.

There was a huge, bulbous octopus that turned three different colors as we watched, melding perfectly into its background to the point of disappearance, and so smart it could -- among other things -- unscrew jars to get at a crabs. I saw a type of seahorse so thin it appeared to be a twig with leaf-like appendages -- so much flotsam -- propelling itself by nearly invisible fluttering fins (all the rest was decoy). Bright orange jellyfish, graceful as ballerinas, left long trails like comets; others looked like little flying saucers with flickering lights all around the edges; still others like living mushroom clouds. The day-glow colors and bizarre shapes of the living corals -- some with huge gaping mouths -- clearly placed them in another time and space, an alien world beyond our wildest imaginations. All manner of eels larger than Arnold's arms and smaller than a pinky, slithering out of holes or poking heads up through the sand. Right out of Star Wars.

After the aquarium, we went to see Avatar in 3-D. It was great fun, if somewhat hokey. The tons of dough that went into making all those imaginary plants and animals produced some cool effects for sure. But it was pretty tame compared to what nature has to offer for free. Cameron's blue-skinned Na'vi's couldn't hold a candle to even the simplest crab or skate or seabird. Science IS stranger than fiction. But we always knew that, didn't we?

A crab with long legs. Photo: KC Cole.

An underwater alien. (KC Cole / NPR)

Fish swim through a coral landscape. Photo: KC Cole.

Amazing corals. (KC Cole / NPR)

A cloud of jellyfish. Photo: KC Cole.

A jellyfish cloud. (KC Cole / NPR)

categories: Science and Culture

8:42 - January 8, 2010