Eyeballs bulge from Gramps’ wrinkled pink-and-gray head; whiskers droop below his frown. Tiny fans where ears should be propel him through the water. He looks like a brain with eyes. I find him irresistible.
The Indonesian giant gourami lives alone in a tank at the Belle Isle Aquarium. When I approach, he opens and shuts his fleshy mouth and smashes his chin against the glass, showing spider veins. Does he dislike me?
No, laughs Douglas Sweet, the aquarium’s curator of fishes. Gramps, a stodgy 25-year-old, is pugnacious about everything.
“We can’t even put plastic plants in there,” says Sweet. “He’ll rip them apart. He actually ingested some and they got stuck in his rectum, his anus. We saw them protruding. I had to tranquilize him and pull them out.”
My romantic vision of Gramps as frog prince is shattered. The graphic imagery initiates me into Sweet’s underworld of aquatic detail. Over the next two hours, during a special tour through one of the world’s oldest and smallest aquariums, I will learn that fish are strange animals, spawning here on Belle Isle like it’s Club Med. Maybe that’s why Gramps is frustrated; he’s involuntarily celibate in a room full of mating.
The circa-1904 aquarium is known nationally for procreation and conservation. Some 32 endangered or threatened species — and six species extinct in the wild — thrive at the aquarium, ranking it in the top three conservation aquariums nationwide, says Sweet.
In 1998, the aquarium won an Edward H. Bean Award — the nation’s top conservation prize granted by the American Zoo and Aquarium Association — for saving Mexico’s golden skiffia from extinction. It won the award twice for successful reproduction of two rare and sexually finicky Amazon stingrays, one of which is a fourth-generation aquarium dweller. A female is pregnant now, with her unborn appearing as two huge moving lumps on her back. Though most fish lay eggs, some, like rays, deliver live young.
The aquarium made headlines recently when shark eggs hatched there spontaneously — no males live at the aquarium. Sweet thinks the mother cloned herself in a moment of hormonal clarity.
Diagonally across from Gramps’ tank, Sweet shows how the rare mbiru of Africa’s Lake Victoria dangles his “genital papillae,” a long, pink, shredded handkerchief-looking thing. After laying eggs, the female will suck this “papillae” (fish penis) into her mouth to fertilize the eggs, which she holds in her mouth for protection. In other words, the mbiru is into fellatio.
Then there’s the pla-ka-pong. The transgender fish changes sex midlife. Sweet says some fish switch sex at certain ages or weights, some from male to female, others vice versa, while some are hermaphrodites. Then there’s the aquarium’s Gulf of Mexico Mangrove killifish, which is both female and male and fertilizes itself. Not to mention the tiny tank snails, which clone themselves infinitely.
In the aquarium’s rear exhibits swim blind cave characin: small, eyeless albinos. In some Mexican caves, says Sweet, the characin outside the caves have eyes, while those inside do not. Fish at the caves’ mouth have partial eyes.
“You can catch the evolutionary process at work. It’s a good example for the creation theorists,” Sweet says with a chuckle.
“That’s why I like studying fish and aquatic invertebrates, because they live such strange lives. They do such crazy things.”
Also here are Great Lakes fish, which compete with endangered species and Gramps for ugliness.
The small, utilitarian nature of the exhibits may explain why the charming, green-tiled, Albert Kahn-designed facility and its host, Gramps, suffer from loneliness. A mere 75,000 people visited last year, compared to as many as 10,000 a day at the Detroit Zoo. Admission for adults went from $3 to $4 this summer (it was free 10 years ago) and ticket sales are far below meeting the aquarium’s $500,000 yearly operating cost and a $700,000 bill for recent repairs (paid for by the city and the nonprofit Detroit Zoological Society). The nearest aquarium is in Toledo, yet Belle Isle’s antique fish sanctuary feels like a forgotten nursing home.
“Belle Isle just isn’t a place that suburbanites feel comfortable visiting anymore,” says Sweet. “It has a bad image.”
And an undeserved one, he says.
Sweet, an aquatic biologist, has 42 tanks at his Eastpointe home. He prides himself on breeding the most delicate and endangered of fish. And, yes, he’s a seafood lover.
He tells me fish live in every cranny of the aquarium as he leads me to the basement, where hundreds of fish live and breed. Tanks line the walls.
We climb on a bench and bend over a big shallow pool. Sweet slaps his hands on the pool side and four huge creatures swim up to us. My heart stops. My hands sweat. They look like sharks. Sweet says they’re endangered Asian catfish that at 25 percent of full size weigh in at 100 pounds — too big for Belle Isle. They’re waiting for a new home, possibly in Miami. Then he shows me the mussels he’s trying to save.
Sadly, Sweet’s workshop at the aquarium is itself endangered. Plans are in the works to drum up support for a huge modern aquarium on Detroit’s riverfront. The plan’s got a tentative green light from Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick. The new facility would replace the old, but the plan is years from fruition, says Ron Kagan, director of the Detroit Zoological Institute and board chairman of the Metro Detroit Visitors and Convention Bureau.
The Belle Isle Aquarium is “a very small place. It’s hard to be a powerful tourism magnet when you’re very small,” says Kagan. “All the other aquariums are bigger and better and more modern.
“It’s a wonderful place,” says Kagan, “but it’s near the end of its life.”
Go while you can.
The aquarium showcases its fish — and maybe some sex — 10 a.m.-5 p.m. daily. Admission is $2 for ages 2-12, $3 for 62 and over, and $4 for 13-61. Call 313-852-4141.Lisa M. Collins is a Metro Times staff writer. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org