No sooner have you paid your sixpence at the turnstile which admits you, than your eye is caught by what seems to be a large window in the wall, near the man who has taken your money. You look through the glass, and find yourself looking into a deep sea-pool, with low stone-grey rocks studded with sea-anemones in full bloom. There are twenty-one different species of sea-anemones in the Aquarium; but those to be seen in this particular pool are chosen from about seven of the largest kinds. The very biggest, a Tealia crassicornis, measures ten inches across when he spreads his pearly fingers to their full extent. “In my young days” we called him by the familiar name of Crassy; and found him so difficult to keep in domestic captivity, that it was delightful to see him blooming and thriving as he does in Tank No. 1 of the Great Aquarium. His squat build–low and broad–contrasts well with those tall white neighbours of his (Dianthus plumosa), whose faces are like a plume of snowy feathers. All the sea-anemones in this tank have settled themselves on the rocks according to their own fancy. They are of lovely shades of colour, rosy, salmon-coloured, and pearly-white.
There are more than five thousand sea-anemones of various kinds in the Aquarium; and they have an attendant, whose sole occupation is to feed them, by means of a pair of long wooden forceps.
Reluctantly breaking away from such old friends, we pass through a door into a long vault-like stone passage or hall, down one side of which there seem to be high large windows, about as far apart as windows of a long room commonly are. Behind each of these is a sea-pool like the first one.
Take the first of the lot–Tank No. 2. It is stocked with Serpulae. Sea-anemones are well-known to most people, but tube-worms are not such familiar friends; so I will try to describe this particular kind of “sea-gentlemen.” The tube-worms are so called because, though they are true worms (sea-worms), they do not trust their soft bodies to the sea, as our common earth-worms trust theirs in a garden-bed, but build themselves tubes inside which they live, popping their heads out at the top now and then like a chimney-sweep pushing his brush out at the top of a tall round chimney. Now if you can fancy one of our tall round manufactory chimneys to be white instead of black, and the round chimney-sweep’s brush to have lovely gay-coloured feathers all round it instead of dirty bristles, or if you can fancy the sweep letting off a monster catherine-wheel at the chimney’s mouth, you may have some idea what a tube-worm’s head is like when he pokes it out of his tube.
The Serpulae make their tubes of chalky stuff, something like egg-shell; and they stick them on to anything that comes to hand down below. Those in the Great Aquarium came from Weymouth. They were dredged up with the white pipes or tubes sticking to oyster-shells, old bottles, stones, and what not, like bits of maccaroni glued on to old crockery sherds. These odds and ends are overgrown, however, with weeds and zoophytes, and (like an ugly house covered by creepers) look picturesque rather than otherwise. The worms have small bristles down their bodies, which serve as feet, and help them to scramble up inside their tubes, when they wish to poke their heads out and breathe. These heads are delicate, bright-coloured plumes. Each species has its own plume of its own special shape and colour. They are only to be seen when the animal is alive. A good many little Serpulae have been born in the Aquarium.
Through the next window–Tank No. 3–you may see more tube-worms, with ray-like, daisy heads, and soft muddy tubes. They are Sabellae.
Have you ever see a “sea-mouse”? Probably you have: preserved in a bottle. It is only like a mouse from being about the size of a mouse’s body, without legs, and with a lot of rainbow-coloured hairs. You may be astonished to hear that it is classed among the worms. There is a sea-mouse in the Great Aquarium. I did not see him; perhaps because he is given to burrowing. If he is not in one of the two tanks just named he is probably in No. 21 or No. 25. He is so handsome dead and in a bottle, that he must be gorgeous to behold alive and in a pool. You should look out for him.