Looking back, there are no shortage of reasons why I was bullied. I’m not saying I deserved it. However, I certainly didn’t help my cause.
My elementary school social standing left much to be desired, to say the least. I was a nerd and a dork (labels I now look back at with pride). Back then, however, pride wasn’t even in my vocabulary. When you are small for your age and picked last in gym class (even picked after sloths and paraplegics), there really isn’t much hope. It’s a pretty sad state of affairs when even other nerds pick on you. When you’re a nerd trying to climb the social ladder, surrounding yourself with other nerds doesn’t exactly help your cause. So you compensate by shunning your own people, while simultaneously feeling yourself gravitating toward them as the only possible source of friendship. A perpetual catch-22.
I often fancy myself building a time machine, so I could tell my childhood self a thing or two. I would begin with this sensible piece of advice: “don’t start out the school year sporting a Sea-Monkey necklace.” For those (unfortunate) few in the dark about Sea-Monkeys, they are a hybrid form of slickly-packaged brine shrimp that hatch instantly after adding water and are most commonly found in the science section at Toys ‘R Us, next to Magic Rocks and Ant Farms (two other early childhood hobbies that did nothing to boost my popularity). Invented (or, more accurately “marketed”) in 1957 by Harold von Brauhut (one year before Milton Levine put ant farms on the map), Sea-Monkeys roughly resemble enlarged sperm, growing to about 1-2 inches in length and certainly look nothing like the way they are portrayed on their packaging – gigantic sperm cross-pollinated with long-limbed, mythical creatures with a long, dragon-like tail and three horns coming out of their heads. A mix of mermaid and fetus would also be accurate. But never, at any point, would ‘monkey’ be an accurate description.
According to their packaging, “Sea-Monkeys are a true miracle of nature. They exist in suspended animation inside their tiny eggs” until water is added, making them “real life time travelers asleep in biological time capsules for their strange journey into the future!”
The cherry on top is the fact that “anyone can get perfect results without any knowledge of chemistry or biology” which was perfect for a scientifically-challenged youth like myself. (Speaking of science…fun fact: NASA once flew Sea-Monkeys to outer space to test gravity’s effect on animals born in a gravity-free environment? The result? They grew bigger…and faster).
Like legions of other boys, I first discovered Sea-Monkeys advertised on the back of comic books, or in the Johnson-Smith Company catalog – a company specializing in novelty and gag gifts like fake poop and snapping gum. How could one resist “becoming the owner of the most fantastic pets to ever live and breathe”?! In fact, you are guaranteed (Sea-Monkeys come with no shortage of ‘guarantees’) to “have more fun with them than any aquatic creature you’ve ever owned…Unlike make-believe toys, pet Sea-Monkeys are really alive and are always ready and eager to put on a show!”
My first experience with Sea-Monkeys was in the first grade, when I received a deluxe Sea-Monkey kit for Christmas. It was love at first. Of course, I naturally assumed that they would just like how they look on their package, so my excitement was understandable. Despite my initial disappointment, my interest in Sea-Monkeys never waned. Perhaps, I was just hopeful that someday, they would live long enough to grow into the image of them depicted on the packaging. Part of me still believes.
Included in my starter kit was the traditional, plastic aquarium. It also comes with three small, color-coded, numbered packets: Packet #1: “Sea-Monkey Water Purifier.” Packet #2: “Sea-Monkey Instant Life” (the eggs). Packet #3: “Sea-Monkey Growth Food”, including a double-sided spoon for feeding purposes: one side for baby Sea-Monkeys; the other for adults. The packet of food is so small, it begs the question: what happens when it runs out? I quickly learned that Sea-Monkeys usually don’t outlive their food supply. And if by some rare miracle that they did, they do, replacement food could be ordered through their catalog.
One way to keep them alive longer was to make use of the included “Sea-Monkey Million-Bubble Air Pump”, which allows fresh oxygen to be manually pumped into the water. It can also be used to suck up feces, corpses of fallen Sea-Monkey comrades, and other debris.
Everyone remembers their first Sea-Monkey experiment. Eager to hatch my new pets, I filled up the tank and added the “Water Purifier,” only to suffer through what every Sea-Monkey fan can relate to: the 24-hour waiting period before the eggs could be added. The wait to bring new life into the world was excruciating.
When the time finally came to add the “Instant Life” packet to the water (spilling at least a quarter of the contents onto the counter), at which point I was required to stir with a spoon for a full minute, setting forth in motion the miracle of life. After mixing my Sea-Monkey cocktail, I peered into the tank, but failed to locate any sign of life through the murky water filled with various debris and particles. The legitimacy of the whole ordeal was brought into question. My dad promptly suggested that I hold the tank up to the window and into the light. Lo and behold, I noticed a hundred or so tiny, swimming specks, which were even more evident when seen through the numerous bubble magnifying glasses on the side of the tank. After a few days, I no longer needed to find them through the magnifying glass.
Within a couple of weeks, Sea-Monkeys grow to about ½ inch in size. Before long, up to ¾ in length…well on their way to becoming the human-esque caricatures on the package! Hope quickly faded into disappointment once I realized they weren’t going to grow any larger, nor come close to the package’s deceptive playful, carefree depiction in any size, shape, or form. In fairness, they did have long tails and horns on their heads, but it still begged the question: at what point does false advertising come into play?
Another disappointing early discovery was the alarming death rate. What started out as a bustling village of around 100 living creatures was quickly cut in half. At first, I wondered if they were sick, but I would later come to realize that this was par for the course. Another week or so later, the Sea-Monkey apocalypse was reduced to a baker’s dozen. The only upside to a smaller population was that I could give them names, such as Muffin, Cupcake, Cheesecake, Biff, Bert, Ernie, and Chet.
I was also able to decipher distinct personalities. Some were playful. Some were moody. Some were social. Some stuck to themselves. Some were horny. In fact, my first lessons in sex-ed were from my Sea-Monkeys. Unlike the efficiency of human mating rituals, Sea-Monkey mating could last for several days (on a side note, like mating, Sea-Monkey bowel movements are also multi-day affairs. A long string of poo appears from their tail, following their producer’s every movement until the laws of physics caused it to break off, joining the debris field down below, awaiting the “Million-Bubble Air Pump”).
Making love “Sea-Monkey style” goes a little something like this: male Sea-Monkeys simply clasp on to the root of the female’s tail, using the “whisker” like graspers under their chins. If the female doesn’t manage to shake him off, the couple swam in connected unison for days on end until the process is over, culminating in the arrival of an egg sack on top of the female’s tail (Although, some females have the ability to produce an egg sack without the help of a male at all!).
On a related note, males are also prone to physical acts of aggressions with their competition (the grasping and thrusting actually resembles human mating far more than actual Sea-Monkey mating). The winner of the fight wins the girl.
Following the formation of the egg sack, the gestation period can last for several days, or even weeks, before new babies appeared. Most never survived. Unlike their parents, who were born into purified water, these babies never stood a chance. Their poor little lungs were forced to withstand too much debris in the form of feces and the rotting carcasses of their fallen brethren.
Over time, adult Sea-Monkeys begin to die off, one-by-one. However, unlike other pets, death is not the end. Sea-Monkeys have the Jesus-like ability to “resurrect”. All that is required a great deal of patience. The secret is to let the water completely evaporate – a process that takes several weeks, making it even more excruciating than the waiting period prior to hatching. When the water is finally completely gone (leaving a nasty, stinking debris field in its wake), you simply add more water and voila! Instant life.
Hallelujah! They are risen! Hallelujah! Hallelujah!
Despite the illusion that Sea-Monkeys turn into Sea-Zombies, in reality, the babies came from previously unhatched eggs. Sadly, these babies weren’t long for this earth, dying within a couple of days of their short-lived resurrection, making them both a miracle and a let-down in equal measure. Incidentally, just as Sea-Monkeys marked my first experience with sex and reproduction, Sea-Monkeys also marked my first experience with death.
I learned this resurrection trick in the nifty instruction manual included in the package, which went to great lengths to further cement the mystique and endless appeal of the whole Sea-Monkey universe, living up to their “Amazing Live Sea-Monkeys!” marketing moniker.
For example, who knew that Sea-Monkeys loved performing for an audience? Furthermore, they could perform an array of magic tricks. Trick No. 1, as described in the manual is called “Sea-Monkey Hypnotism”, which involves shining a flashlight at their tank in a dark room. As you move the flashlights, the Sea-Monkeys will follow the beam of a light, as though in a trance.
And who doesn’t want to wait in line to see amazing “Acrobatic Sea-Monkeys”, which involves leaving your Sea-Monkeys in a dark room for several minutes, before turning on a bright light.
Then, watch them dance! (aka as twirling and spinning in circles as they adjust to the bright light suddenly forced upon them without warning).
Don’t miss out on the Electric “Sea-Show”! All that is required is a blank wall and a flashlight, resulting in a Sea-Monkey shadow show that not only make your aquatic pets look ginormous … but as close in appearance to the package as they could possible get in terms of both size and shape. Before I discovered the joy of masturbation, this was how I would typically end my night: watching Sea-Monkey shadows swimming by my side. A Sea-Monkey dreamscape!
The manual also makes reference to the “Great Sea-Monkey Baseball Game.” The description reads as follows: “Believe it or not, Sea-Monkeys make great ballplayers! In fact, the United State Government awarded Patent No. 3,853,317 to Harold Braunhut for his invention … that lets them play nine innings of real baseball – hits, runs, errors and all!” You can actually request a copy of the patent itself, along with a “long, detailed articles all about this amazing new aquatic sport!” I never actually requested one, which is odd considering how big of a baseball fan I am. Furthermore, this parent has been pending for at least 30 years. I’m assuming another 30 is quite likely, as everyone awaits not only a patent, but the evolution of the species itself into something capable of playing a human sport—especially once as complex as baseball.
Sea-Monkeys, are indeed, a most playful creature. At the back of the are items that can be mail-ordered and sent directly to your doorstep! One of the items I ordered (for just one dollar! … plus quadruple shipping and handling) were “Sea-Monkey Sea-Diamonds (the Anti-Gravity ‘Toy’)”. They come in a small packet similar to the Growth Food and Instant Life and contained small, plastic pebbles designed to look like diamonds. After dumping them into the water, they begin to float at various levels of suspension. According to the product description, Sea-Monkeys were supposed to have a field day with them, tossing them back and forth like beach balls, playing soccer, or even surfing on them. In reality, the Sea-Monkeys ignore them, coming into contact with them only by accident…sometimes even resulting in their death, crushed beneath a lethal Sea-Diamond.
Other items I ordered throughout the years: Cupid’s-Arrow Mating Powder, Grow-Kwickly Sea-Monkey Growth Stimulator, Red-Magic Sea-Monkey Vitamins, Sea- Medic Sea-Monkey Medicine, and Sea-Monkey Banana Treat (a banana-scented powder… because, what monkeys don’t love bananas?). There is even a mating powder (Cupids Arrow) “for shy Sea-Monkeys afraid of ‘marriage’…this fabulous formula will give them a quick trip ‘to the altar’! Once ‘hooked’, former ‘bachelor’ Sea-Monkeys will fill your tank with oodles of babies – fast.”
I was obsessed. A certified Sea-Monkey junkie. In fact, one can even send away for a “college degree with a real diploma certifying you as a Sea-Monkey scientist…awarded by The Crustacean College of Sea-Monkey Knowledge.” And not just any degree, mind you! But a DLD (Doctor of Denizens of the Deep)! But why stop there? This degree awards you a Fellowship in the Secret Society of Sea-Monkey Scientists “with full authority to discover U.F.O’s (Unknown Forms of Sealife) anywhere in the Galaxy.” All for just $16!
There are several other accessories one can get for their Sea-Monkeys, if so inclined, many of which I owned (or still own). Several alternative aquariums are still offered in the catalog, including a lighted one, the “Electric Ocean-Zoo Showboat”, featuring multi-colored lights, and “Executive Sea-Monkeys for Grown-Ups” (a “gold”-plated tank).
One of the lowlights I experienced with Sea-Monkey accessories was the Sea-Monkey “tequarium” – a vinyl, collapsible tank featuring a desert landscape that promptly leaked out the entire contents of its water once I attempted to pour my Sea-Monkeys into it. After realizing that the tequarium was not fit for Sea-Monkeys, it didn’t stop me from later using it as a domicile for a chameleon and later, a hermit crab – both of which were therefore deprived from their instinctual urge to climb. I later noticed that this item was removed from the catalog in later years.
Another notable Sea-Monkey tragedy occurred when my cousin accidentally knocked the tank over, spilling life onto my bedroom floor. Though I tried in vain to pick up my little buddies off of the floor, I learned that they can’t even five seconds out of water before they perished. I’m guessing their miniscule size might have something to do with this. At least two were squished to death before suffocation could occur.
Perhaps the biggest disappointment was the moment when I realized that Sea-Monkeys were nothing more than glorified brine shrimp. This fateful discovery was made at a pet shop with my dad, when he pointed out a tank filled with brine shrimp what was being sold not as pets, but as fish food. We bought a bag home, which we promptly put into the tank. Sure, we didn’t have to wait for them to hatch, but all the excitement was gone. I also refused to believe they were the same thing. Within a month, they were all dead and it was back to Toys ‘R Us to buy the real deal – at 20 times the cost of the pet shop. My parents could have refused to pay that much, but they opted to let me keep the illusion real in my mind. It was both a testament to the crack marketing magic of the Sea-Monkey brand, and a testament to my ability to suspend disbelief.
However, there is no greater suspension of disbelief (with the exception of maybe Sea-Monkey baseball) than Sea-Monkeys racing. Yet, sure enough, I was the proud owner of the Sea-Monkey racetrack, which was essentially a chunk of white plastic with a groove running through the middle. At the front of the groove was a little plastic flag, which served as a gate (which I learned could sever a hapless Sea-Monkey in half with if one wasn’t careful). Once you loaded the Sea-Monkeys in front of the gate, it was off to the races! The Sea-Monkeys would charge down the groove until they reached the other end, much akin to sperm through a vaginal canal. Since it was next to impossible to keep track of which Sea-Monkey was which, it was impossible to keep track of who won, taking away any sense of competition. There are several reasons Sea-Monkey racing isn’t exactly a betting sport. So even though there were no clear losers in Sea-Monkey racing, the mere act of participating made me an honorary one.
Last, but certainly not least, was the Sea-Monkey necklace. And by necklace, I don’t mean a medallion resembling a Sea-Monkey. What I mean is, an actual miniature plastic bubble hanging from a red string that you can place a few of your Sea-Monkeys into (suctioned with the “Million Dollar Air Pump”, of course!) and carry around town (or, in my case, school). Despite constant teasing, I naturally convinced myself that they were jealous and/or didn’t know a fashion statement when they saw one. Why the ladies didn’t flock is something I’ll never be able to figure out! Wearing it, I was felt an overwhelming sense of protection. As a result, I kept it on at all times, which in turn prompted even further bullying. It was a vicious cycle. I even attempted to wear it during gym class – the epicenter of bullying. However, my gym teacher wisely asked me to keep it in my locker. This mandate was extended to the swimming pool, as well, sparing my pets from being poisoned by chlorine in the process. At the time, I thought it only made since that we could all swim as one.
My insistence on wearing a Sea-Monkey necklace begs a logical question (well, probably several questions): What kind of parents would send their son to school wearing a necklace filled with Sea-Monkeys? And how is that not child abuse? Come to think of it, my parents certainly didn’t help my cause on several occasions. But, looking back, I am eternally grateful that they didn’t force me to leave my necklace at home, just as I’m grateful that – during that same year – they didn’t talk me out of buying the Beastie Boys “License to Ill” album when they would have preferred that I buy the soundtrack to Grease II (I ended up getting it for Christmas that year, anyway, along with the soundtrack to Dirty Dancing … and later, More Dirty Dancing). But I digress.
By allowing me to wear my Sea-Monkey necklace, they were allowing me to be me, which would pay dividends in the future on my journey to becoming a writer. It should also be noted that countless bouts of writer’s block were worked out while staring at the Sea-Monkeys hypnotically swimming before me my eyes, lulling me into the right solution.
I still have Sea-Monkeys till this day. And I’m astounded by how little anything has changed: the packaging. The tank. The spoon. It was timeless, suspended animation, much like Sea-Monkeys themselves.
Whenever I go into a toy store, I always make it a point to look for Sea-Monkeys and feel a tinge of disappointment when I don’t see them. In fact, I judge a toy store’s worth by whether or not they carry Sea-Monkeys on their shelves. Fortunately, Toys ‘R Us has never let me down. Recently, I noticed a variety of different types of tanks with various themes such as pirates, outer space, and even a pink tank aimed at girls, including a “Friendship Locket” – the feminine equivalent of my necklace. If only I was able to find a female friend during childhood when who shared my passion. Recently, I discovered the necklace now has a companion watch.
When my daughter was two, I hatched her first batch of Sea-Monkeys. She didn’t show much interest – mostly, because I don’t think she ever saw them. As far as my wife, she was clearly denied the joy of Sea-Monkeys as a child. Like Santa, if you aren’t introduced as a small child, it’s really hard to get with the program. Whenever I try to direct her attention to the tank to see a copulating couple, a fist fight, or just simply partake in the sheer joy of watching them frolic about in all their Sea-Monkey glory, she usually ignores me … and by extension – them. What she doesn’t fail to notice, however, is the dirty water, littered with dead carcasses sitting on the windowsill above the sink. “Why don’t you ever change the water?” she often asks. Perhaps listening to her would prolong their lives. Before they started dying off one by one, this particular batch was the most fertile one I had ever had. They were continually mating. But their babies never lived long. Soon, the two survivors were also gone, at which point I began the resurrection process, at which point my wife was even more disgusted by the debris at the bottom of the tank as the water began to evaporate.
Now that my daughter is four, I recently hatched a new batch. She has definitely shown more interest, but I fear she will never fully embrace them like I did at such a young age.
Not only do I still have Sea-Monkeys, but I still have my Sea-Monkey necklace, stored away in a box of childhood memories along with my fake poop and vomit. Every now and then, I consider filling the necklace up, but then quickly remember what it ultimately put me through, all those years ago. Then again, without it, I wouldn’t be the person I am today. And that truly has made all the difference.