The Smartest Fish in the World

There are many versions of an old folktale where a man casts his net to the sea and brings back a magic fish. The fish, in exchange for its freedom, promises to grant the man any wish. In most versions of this story the man asks for too much and ends up with less than he had to begin with. It is very easy to scoff at this story. For most people the idea of ever encountering a magic fish is ridiculous. It could never actually happen, so the story loses some of its value. Unless, of course, it is told to a person who thinks magic fish might actually exist.

Magic is a strong word, but from my experience, I suspect there are fish out there that are intelligent and wise beyond human recognition. I have known such a fish for the vast majority of my life. When I was around two years old, my parents bought a Plecostomus, or Algae Eater, to keep our aquarium clean. We never gave it a name, and simply called him, “Plecostomus.” Over the years, our aquarium has seen its share of comings and goings, life and death, with the Plecostomus silently witnessing it all. Twenty years later our fish is alone in his tank, although now he looks more like a sea monster of maritime legend than the small fish bought in an aquarium store.

I am convinced that Plecostomus is one of the smartest fish in the world. For two decades he has lived in a tank with an excellent line of sight to the living room TV. It might sound crazy, and I suppose it is, but I am fairly sure Plecostomus watches television. I have learned a lot from TV, so it seems reasonable to think maybe our fish has learned some things, too. Even if all he knows is cartoons and Star Trek and local news, Plecostomus is probably smarter than the average fish.

It has been a long subject of speculation for me to wonder what life is like for this fish. Part of me thinks it would be an ideal way to live. Who wouldn’t want to do nothing but observe the outside world, watch TV, and wait for little tablets of food to fall from above? Then I remember there is no remote control in the tank with him. Plecostomus might watch TV, but that doesn’t mean he always likes what he watches. There have probably been many times when he was really into something and one of the rude humans changed the channel or went so far as to turn the TV off.

I have often wondered if Plecostomus knows he is in a tank. More importantly, does he care? Does he think there is water on the other side of the transparent barriers, or does he know about air? Does he think of the world outside the aquarium the same way we think of outer space? Does he worry about a rock or baseball smashing into his tank and destroying the world like some people worry about an asteroid colliding with the Earth.

At first, it seems sad, the life of Plecsotomus. He is the same age as me, but has never left the confines of his glass enclosure. He never had a chance to go to school or visit distant places. It’s only sad, though, with the assumption that Plecostomus wants something different. He gets the chance to literally be a giant fish in a small pond, which is something few humans ever have and usually ends in disaster for people who try to achieve it.

If I could communicate with Plecostomus, I would ask him what it is like to live in a tank. I think he would ask a strange and profound question in return. “What makes you think you don’t live in a tank?”