I was seeking respite from the drenching heat, thirsting for a cool, dark atmosphere. Montpellier Aquarium is a cheery, jingle-playing tram ride from the city’s central plaza whose fountain Alasdair Gray is rumoured to have once fallen into. Whenever there is a heatwave, the French recall 2003, when excessive heat caused thousands of deaths, particularly of the vulnerable and the elderly.
Montpellier is a pretty city with elegant architectural bones. Students and street art bring it a youthful atmosphere. My rental apartment boasted mirrored walls, a perspex table, Jean Paul Gaultier teapot, Jeff Koons knock-off dog statue and assorted mood lighting, but the wheezing air con couldn’t keep up with heat filling the high ceiling-ed, large-windowed, 19th-century nook and all its disco-ready reflective surfaces. Six months later in a building of approximately the same age in Glasgow, I can sense when the neighbours downstairs have their heating on, and am glad of it.
Near the end of the aquarium’s assorted oohs and aahs – tapestries of coral, gliding sharks – came the axolotl enclosure. My desire for respite from the heat satiated, I was feeling cooler headed than I had in days. But to confront an axolotl is to be momentarily stupified, perplexed that such a creature, as cute and unusual as a Pokemon, truly exists. The pale pink alien before me, chilling out on the floor of his tank, was real. And much, much bigger than I had anticipated.
Perhaps I had confused the axolotl with the tardigrade, a microscopic ‘water-bear’ popular around the same time in the ‘wacky animal’ genre of online content. Later, intrigued, I watch a YouTube video of an axolotl ‘barking’, one short cute arf trailed by bubbles in the water.
I learn that the creatures have a truly remarkable ability to regenerate limbs and organs, that they are native to the waters around Mexico City and, suffering from habitat loss, pushed from rivers to inland canals, are critically endangered. Ecologists estimate there are fewer than 1,000 in the wild, possibly just 50. How poorly we humans have treated this world, rendering it uninhabitable for all that is miraculous and beautiful.