My obsession began when I caught a sturgeon watching me from the tank, horny scutes instead of scales framing its glaring eyes. Or rather, it seemed to be glaring.
There were two in an airy, high ceilinged room of the Grand Rapids Public Museum. They swam near a bay window that overlooked the Grand River, the longest river in Michigan, where a giant arrow was pasted: suspected spawning zone, approximately 100 feet north.
Decals on the wall told of their evolution dating back to the Triassic, 245 to 208 million years ago. By the 1870’s, local settlers viewed them as a nuisance, which caused a rapid decline toward their current threatened status.
To the right, a diorama in a glass case depicted a tribe catching the fish, roasting thick slices on a fire made of delicately-cut orange paper. A community connected to the river.
My three-year old son crawled into a wigwam made of brown felt in the center of the room. After peeking out of flapped windows, he was ready to move on, rushing into the next room that contained a series of small wooden doors.
There, we pushed glowing buttons to hear the Scarlet tanager or the white throated sparrow. As we opened layers of bark on hinges, signs asked: guess which species of wood you are holding.
Ed Roseman, a biologist with the Great Lakes Science Center, says sturgeon scatter their eggs on river floors like handfuls of marbles. Broadcast spawners, he calls them.
Yet ever since the Detroit River was dredged, he explains, they’ve been depositing eggs into odd spaces: inside the bubbled vesicles of coal cinders or treads of sunken tires, anywhere to hide from the sledge of freighters.
Interstices, which can also mean gap, interlude, hiccup, lull.
When my son and I wandered into the Great Lakes section of the Shedd Aquarium, with its sparse crowd of tourists and worn out carpet, it felt like a cheap hotel lobby in Vegas. Vague boredom and mysterious humidity hung in the air.
Respect the fish, wash your hands said a sign and we did, then stood in a line. At first, I didn’t know what we were waiting for, but ahead I saw a low artificial pond framed with decorative rocks: something you might see filled with carp in a fancy backyard.
I held my son’s hand as we moved to the front, where three sturgeon zoomed. There, people did what we were expected to do: place a hand in pond and touch the fish, greenish-black and darker than the color of the shallow pond, circling with erect caudal fins like sharks. I couldn't help wondering how these bottom-dwellers felt having depth shaved off, as if someone had gulped down their tall glass of water.
My usually adventurous son didn’t want a touch. The adult in me didn’t wait in line for nothing, so I slipped a few fingers in. The fish wouldn't meet me halfway, so I had to go in past my wrist and finally my fingertips met the groove of bones under silky, scale-free skin. Each inch gave way to my pressure, yet pushed back, spring loaded. They didn’t pull away from my touch—were they enjoying it? Or did they get some reward for putting up with me?
I thought of the seal show we passed on the way to the Great Lakes, with drawn curtains and lots of applause.
Are these fish trained? I asked the people around me.
The attendant told us to move forward, as the line was getting long.
Later, Wikipedia told me more about sturgeon’s nature: they feed non-visually, navigating by dragging their four barbels along gravel. Famously, they are known to leap out of the water completely, without notice, their splashes heard up to a half a mile away. In 2015, a five-year-old riding on a power boat was killed by such a leap.
When a New York Times reporter set out to the International Sturgeon Symposium in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, he reported that no one is quite sure why they jump, as they are not flashy like tuna or spotted sea trout. Some say they do so to shed parasites, avoid predators, or communicate, but no theory is completely bulletproof.
In the end, the reporter posed another guess, which “gets closer to the soul of the fish: it simply feels good.”
I never bought my son anything at the museum gift store, but we always went in anyway, and it was the same every time: he plucked expensive dream catchers, shook mercury timekeepers, sunk his fists into the paper-mache volcano full of rose quartzes and tiger eyes, whisking the rocks violently until the clerk looked over.
He was too short to see the bluish-gray plush sturgeons high up on a shelf, next to "Urgin' for Sturgeon" bumper stickers. Unlike the dinosaurs at ground level, there was no stegosaurus or T-Rex, no beasts remembered and revered for their various feats. Only a dozen or so ugly fish crammed shelf-wide, unpopular or recently restocked, not yet extinct.
Natalie Tomlin’s recent poetry and nonfiction appears in Canary, Dunes Review, J Journal, The Hopper, Midwestern Gothic, and elsewhere. Her nonfiction was selected as notable in The Best American Essays 2018 and her poem “Lake Huron, 1989” earned first place at the 2018 Westminster Art Festival. She lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan with her husband and son.