The marine aquarium, which had the irremediable fault for our mobile minds of not being the first to be finished, was much joked about - if you'll pardon the expression -. The freshwater aquarium, its neighbour and rival in fame, was exalted at its expense; then, one fine day - late, it is true - the sea and the fish came! Now the public says nothing more,... it admires, and that is the best it can do.
The truly grandiose, imposing and unexpected aspect of this construction - the importance of which one does not suspect at first sight - strikes the visitor's mind keenly.
One should not be afraid to tell the truth sometimes in passing. We French are all a bit Gascons-I was going to say boasters. - So I closed my ear, before I saw, to the rumours of the more or less round sums at which the construction of this remarkable building was estimated. Well, now that I've seen it, I'm not surprised by anything: next to the freshwater aquarium, this one is like a cathedral with its crypt next to a pretty chapel. Both are caves dug or pierced in the rocks; but the primary data of these constructions are absolutely different, and after having done justice to the excellent arrangements of the first, we cannot avoid saying that those of the second are much more daring and less known. There are, between the two, immense steps accomplished.
As you enter the Reserved Garden through the main door, you will see a dark cave opening on your left. This is the marine aquarium. On the right, on the left, in front of you, stalactites or stalagmites, descending from the vaults or rising from the ground: let us say it straight away: this kind of decoration has been overused in the marine aquarium, which has produced flickering and monotony: but this is a very slight criticism in the face of the grandness of the general conception.
Once you have entered this cavern - let us note in passing that it is the exit of the building and that it is presented upside down to visitors coming from the point we have chosen - you naturally want to look into the tanks that surround you, but you immediately withdraw disappointed, because you see nothing but the water that mirrors you and reflects your own image! Seeing yourself is not without its pleasures, especially for pretty women, but this is not the spectacle you came to the marine aquarium for; so you turn around disappointed, pestering and grumbling against this Aquarium in which you see nothing!
You then see in a dark and quiet corner a city sergeant or a municipal officer and, next to him, some steps which sink into the ground;... naturally, you run to him,..., but the impassive guard warns you that you are completely on the wrong track and urges you to get out of here and find another entrance which is the right one. Very good! All of you come out, a good number of travellers climb the rocks in search of this entrance and getting lost among the tents and kiosks, only find it after a few hours of assiduous searching... Many give up and go to admire the geraniums and petunias instead of looking for the right entrance. We should have remembered the famous Ariadne's thread she would have given them in the form of a hand-hold that would have guided them.
Fortunately, we are wiser than that and we think well that the entrance to an underground aquarium is not made by the top of the rocks; so, we prosaically follow their base and we arrive at a small lake dug in the bitumen, and filled with a red water more stagnant than pleasing to the sight. By the way, would it not be possible to change this state of affairs and fill this lake with clear water? It would be a case of putting some great fish of our seas in it and urging it to stay there. We do not know - or rather we want to appear to not know - whether it would stay there, but what we must say - for the truth is needed in everything - is that the appearance of the water today is icy and lifeless! A multicoloured tent shelters the waves, but it is not enough; and besides, the cascatelle that was supposed to stir up this water, by pouring it from the lake into the stream, does not work.
There is something to be done there. Now, having made these reflections, and satisfied in yourself with your erudition and your criticism - it is always a pleasure to criticize, of course, one finds oneself much stronger than the one one being criticized - you arrive, behind you, in a spacious grotto, opening under columns of petrification, where pendants abound and which forms the proscenium of the temple of the fishes. Here the scene of the first entrance is renewed: ice set in the rocks on all sides, water behind, fish;... you approach, you see yourself,... this is not what you came for, you move back, you come back, you bend over and, with great difficulty, you end up vaguely seeing some crabs, some actinia clinging to the rocks.
But no! -- Here, over there, are new steps that are lost in the ground. Let's try this descent - note that it is forbidden to smoke in this underground chamber. - Here we go to the depths of the sea. Fifteen or twenty steps down and we find ourselves in an underground cave. The vault is supported by strong natural pillars, stalactites hang from all sides, water drips from the rocks and splashes in the folds of the ground. We turn, no way out, are we trapped in the watery realms? Apart from a very pronounced odour of damp cement - an odour that cigar smoke would only have corrected - the walk is easy and pleasant in the pale light of frosted globes suspended from the vault or hidden behind crevices, no more and no less than in an opera set or a scene from the apotheosis of a Hind in the woods.
O happiness! At the bend in a pillar, a path presents itself to our eyes. It is a staircase which goes up to the surface of the ground... We come out through the first cave and we go to smell a fresher air under the trees which should be in a reserved garden.
We go up....
This is the most beautiful effect of the marine aquarium, an effect that alone is worth all the other wonders. Just when you think you see the blue sky again, you emerge into the realms of water. You emerge from the ground in the centre of an oblong room - still made of rocks, of course - all the ice walls of which are walls of sea water. All around you is the sea in an enormous thickness of 1 to 2 metres: above your head the water... everywhere sea creatures that live, glide and play silently like ghosts.
Supported by four stone pillars, nothing is more curious than this ceiling of water and ice above which you see the hosts of the sea glide. And if you approach the walls of the room? you will have hours to see - without studying them - the inhabitants of 22 tanks separated from you by the 8 mirrors which form as many animated pictures.
Here are the grey and speckled sea-dogs that glide slyly among the rocks and look at you with their large oblique eyes, reminiscent of those in ancient Egyptian paintings. Beside them, kite-like rays, without strings, fly in the water near the surface and go, undulating their large fins like obedient oars and letting their long spiny tail hang inert behind them. It is because in these fishes, curious in more than one respect, the tail is not a rudder as in other species; it is a weapon and a formidable one. Let us stop in front of this band of silver mullets with their long striped coat: can you see them chasing each other by diving into the depths of their tanks? Next to the active life, constantly in motion, we contemplate the vegetative life, this curious speciality of the sea! Here are meadows of actinia - the anemones of the submerged rocks - there are all shapes and colours; there are societies of lobster crabs, tribes of conger eels with a brutal look, detachments of sculpins or sea devils, which come capering by the glass to look at you with their big glassy eyes and show you their cut-out and bizarre crests. Then oysters, then mussels, various shells, and here comes a criticism - because after all, a little criticism is necessary in everything, it is the necessary salt; it is rather the pepper that raises the seasoning of deserved praise - a criticism therefore.
Why didn't you fill the tanks with marine plants? Are they rare? Alas, everyone knows otherwise. Why rocks of Roman cement, when it was so easy to bring in a boat of stones covered with their seaweed finery, and covered with their natural kelp meadows? Why do we not have before our eyes these beautiful plants, red, yellow, green, peacock-tailed, broom, lettuce-leaved, long-wired or broad-leaved scalloped? Where are these beautiful ornaments of the coast?
Alas! They would be even more pleasing to the fish than to the spectators. But, it will be said, the latter will no longer see the former. This is a mistake. Fish like their ordinary retreats, but, with a few exceptions, they come out of their hiding places more often than one might think. As for the nocturnal species, it is for these, if we want to see them, that we must remove the shelters: the conger eel is one of these. But it is, fortunately, one of the most rustic and one of those which best takes its share of captivity.
The gap that we have pointed out can be very easily filled, and the appearance of the inner room will be all the more enchanting. It is so striking, moreover, that you hear only one voice among the visitors: "Why should such a beautiful thing be erased once the Exhibition is over? "And this is true. Modified in the way we have indicated, this aquarium can become one of the greatest sources of attraction in Paris and - we do not want to omit to say it - it would be nice to see the Jardin des Plantes take over a similar work, transport it to its quiet massifs, hide it somewhere and make it its most beautiful jewel. How many curious and new studies and observations would be born there every day under the eyes of science! Alas! three times alas! will it be done?
©L'Exposition Universelle de 1867 Illustrée