Not too long ago, I found quite a rabbithole of a conspiracy theory. This one has all the usual blahblah we see in these feverish fantasies, like mysterious government workings, possible alien abductions, false flag operations, UFO cover-ups, and all the rest. But then, it lovingly pours atop this sundae a secret sauce of Endtimes blithering nonsense. Today, I want to show you the amazing Aquarium–and how I found it.

(You can find an archive of the document we’re discussing here.)

Finding the Aquarium.

One of my friends from high school, we’ll call him Jimmy, turned into a real UFO nutjob. Like, seriously. He got way, way into them right after graduation. In fact, he was one of the primary voices of the UFO conspiracy theory in the early 1990s. Many times, Jimmy flew across the country to talk to fellow UFO conspiracy theorists and wrote up his findings for UFO nutjob journals and mailing lists. But then and very abruptly, with no word beforehand, he simply disappeared from the scene–and, apparently, the entire internet–forever. Nobody could get in touch with him at all. But no obituaries were found, so the guy was probably still alive.

To this day, UFO nutters remember him. They wonder what became of him. Some speculate that he got kidnapped by the evil gubmint and then mindwiped or even–whispered tones here–executed for revealing too much.

I like to think Jimmy just realized it was all sheer lunacy, like what happens with 9/11 truthers or Creationists. When someone’s gone all-in on a particularly whackadoo conspiracy theory and realizes it’s all bollocks, that can be super-embarrassing. At the same time, though, such a person knows that it’s almost impossible to convince the rest of their former tribe that they believe something that simply isn’t true. So yeah, I can easily imagine such a person just slinking away forever.

But before he vanished, Jimmy collaborated with a number of other UFO nutters. The community of higher-end, content-producing UFO nutters is quite incestuous, and as I followed one to the next in rapt curiosity, I ran across one that was so out there that I just had to stop everything and talk about it.

I’m referring, of course, to a conspiracy theory called “the Aviary.” It is the precursor and lead-in to “the Aquarium.”

The trail to the Aquarium rabbithole.

The Aviary is a group of conspiracy theorists who claim to have cultivated relationships with various United States intelligence operatives and officers. It’s important to know from the outset that the official author of this work, Vince Johnson, has no real footprint on the internet and may be a pseudonym. Johnson also doesn’t buy into almost anything in the document we’ll be examining today. In fact, he’s pretty critical of almost all of it. Unfortunately, he’s not critical enough.

If you check out the document we’re discussing today, you’ll notice a helpful note under Vince Johnson’s byline: “from BalaamsAss Website.” That led me to Balaam’s Ass, a fundagelical Christian vanity site. Internet Archive holds a much more entertaining version of the site from April 1997, however.

Balaam’s Ass belongs to Steve and Elizabeth Van Nattan, a pair of KJV-only fundagelicals. Since around 2003, they have also operated a site called Blessed Quietness that holds almost entirely the same information. If you’re a woman, be forewarned that Steve refuses to take calls from women cuz they’re always trying to flirt with him.

If you’re an old-timer from Fundies Say the Darndest Things, then you might recognize the Van Nattan name and both of those domains. They both show up in archives there from 12-14 years ago. One of Steve Van Nattan’s biggest hits there centered on his belief that one day, Jewish people would be turned into hamburgers and steaks and eaten by Gentiles.

Very interesting tie-ins.

The Aviary was initially described in 1993 to, it seems, the very first issue of a CERN journal called CE Chronicles.

In this case, CERN stands for Close Encounters Research Network. It’s not the people behind the Large Hadron Collider. You won’t find any references to these folks on Wikipedia’s disambiguation page, either, nor on Acronym Attic.

A header on the document at Balaam’s Ass offers more info. In 1994, it tells us, someone named Lady-Rhavyn posted the CERN article to a newsgroup or Bulletin Board System. (A BBS was a very primitive forum.) Lady Rhavyn shows up in a 2014 book, The UFO Bible Vol. 1, as the contact for a group called “The Federation.” If you’re wondering about them, they think “it is high time we got off this rock and started exploring the great unknown of space.” And they’ve got an interesting idea for how to do it, too. Listen to this:

The Federation has drawn out in blue print form a drive system that is a a [sic] super semi conducting crystaline structure.

If that sounds interesting, you’ll need to send a Mac-formatted 3.5″ floppy to her PO Box in Alaska, and have Mac Word 5.0 software to read the document you’ll receive. Hm. I’ve got a 2009 desktop Mac and it doesn’t actually even have a 3.5″ floppy port. Interestingly, the Aviary and Vince Johnson’s article does not get a mention in The UFO Bible Vol. 1.

In 1993, someone else, Don Allen, distributed this Aviary article to his UFO group via FIDO, another early forum system. The article Allen distributed is largely the same as we see on the original link. It just has a different header and mentions a different BBS source.

Bear in mind: I’ve never been able to find any CE Chronicles issue, much less this one. I’ve also never seen a full table of contents for it. Or even found any other articles that issue contained.

So what is the Aviary and Aquarium?

The document itself describes two conspiracy theories.

The major and first one involves the Aviary. This group of generally highly-placed intelligence and military officers conducts secret meetings and information-gathering regarding aliens. They all go by bird species names: Nightingale, Harrier, Owl, etc.

One of them, Dan Smith or Chicken Little, got upset that the Aviary was keeping everything so secret. So he started the Aquarium Conspiracy. That’s its official name. Smith decided that eschatology is actual real trufax, and the world really is ending. UFOs are likewise real. They are a psychological phenomenon pushing people to develop psychic powers, and they might be demons or angels. I’m guessing the angels do the probing. Smith is way into the Book of Revelation as a whole, too.

The Aquarium tries to teach birds to swim, he says. To do this, he tries to link conspiracy theorists together so they can see their own individual wall of crazy as part of a bigger over-conspiracy about the end of the world.

A pair of crop-circle enthusiasts involved with Aquarium wanted the Aviary to help avert this crisis somehow. In the Spring of 1993, Vince Johnson saw their writeup. He noticed it mentioned Dan Smith, a name he recognized, and so he asked Don Allen, the moderator of that aforementioned FIDO UFO group, to get him in touch with Smith. When Smith called him, they discussed this whole thing.

Vince Johnson is forced, yes forced to conclude this.

In his initial writeup, Vince Johnson notes that Smith provided very little evidence for his outrageous claims. I think he’s being generous. According to Johnson’s own writeup, Smith provided none whatsoever.

But Smith kept calling Johnson. Over time, Johnson found himself increasingly intrigued by Smith’s stories. Here are the two potential options he says he felt compelled to consider seriously:

1. There is indeed an eschatological emergency as described by Dan Smith, i.e. fulfillment of biblical prophesy with attendant catastrophes; and/or

2. There is a new twist to the old UFO debunking game, capitalizing on new-age mysticism and millennial “apocophilia.”

That last term, apocophilia, means taking pleasure in end of the world scenarios.

Of course, the third option, that Smith was a total wackaloon spinning confirmation-bias fantasies out of stardust and self-importance, did not make Johnson’s list of available options.

FINALLY: Johnson talks to an Aviary member!

One of Smith’s main sources of information appears to be an Aviary guy calling himself “Pelican.” Pelican claims to be a physicist working for the CIA’s “Directorate of Science and Technology.” He also claims to man the “Weird Desk” there, which sounds like setup of The X-Files. Of note: The X-Files began in September, 1993, so right before, like just months before, Johnson’s article was published in CE Chronicles. Also, this directorate does exist. It apparently ran such projects as BLUEBIRD and MKULTRA, both beloved of the conspiracy-theory community.

When Johnson finally got a chance to talk to Pelican, he noted that this CIA physicist sounded shockingly young.

That only reminded me again of Jimmy; most of the UFO community thought he was some big-time investigator or scientist. They seemed completely unaware that he was just a 19-to-21-year-old high school graduate.

Incidentally, speaking of The X-Files, I ran across a WikiLeaks essay speculating about one Ron Pandolfini. That’s Pelican’s possible real name. If so, then Pelican might be the inspiration for Fox Mulder. The essay also mentions the Aviary by name, stating that a 1988 TV show, UFO Cover-up Live, discussed Aviary and some of its members.

The Aviary probably doesn’t exist, but that’s exactly what they’d want you to believe…

Whatever the case, Pelican insisted to Johnson that the whole Aviary idea is the creation of the imagination of Robert Collins, who went by Condor. Around 2005, Collins would go on to write a book about the UFO cover-up, by the way; it’s even got a 2018 update. But back then, Collins apparently used to send letters to Pelican all the time. Pelican thought these were such a “hoot” that he posted them on his office wall for his CIA buddies to laugh at. He insisted that Aviary wasn’t real at all.

Pelican’s disavowal of Aviary left Johnson, in his words, “more confused than ever.” After all, as he wrote:

Of course, nobody is shocked any more by government denials that turn out to be less than truthful, but as I said before, Pelican was very convincing.

So wouldn’t that be exactly what the CIA might want people to believe? If the Aquarium were real, then wouldn’t this Aviary be the perfect smokescreen distraction from it?

Gosh, what to do, what to believe?

BTW: a couple of years after Vince Johnson’s article was published, a schism apparently split the Aviary. Some of them were pushing harder for openness with the public. Meanwhile, others held a hard line on total secrecy. Infighting FTW!

Vince Johnson goes all-in on the Aquarium over-conspiracy theory.

After writing up all this stuff, which again contains no hard evidence whatsoever, Vince Johnson buys completely into the whole Aquarium conspiracy theory.

Gosh, y’all, he just had to buy in. Just look at all these converging weirdnesses he writes about:

New-Age channelers are also getting into the act with messages from angels/ avatars/aliens warning of imminent “Earth changes” along with warnings against gun control, Zionism, the “New World Order,” and other right-wing paranoid delusions.

When considering these claims, one would be remiss in not pointing out the upsurge in reports of Blessed Virgin Mary (BVM) sightings, and other paranormal events of religious significance to the experiencers. As with the many New Age channeled messages, many of the reported Marion locutions warn of “Earth changes” and the “End Times.” Starting in 1981, the most spectacular and long-lasting BVM visitation (with scads of witnesses to the “miracles“) occurred in Medjugorje, on the Adriatic coast of Bosnia Herzegovinia, now one of the most horrific hell-holes on the planet. So much for the positive spiritual effects one might expect from from such beatific locutions. Maybe things just aren’t what they seem.

Anyone familiar with UFO-abduction accounts is forced to conclude that weird things are happening or at least being perceived as happening by large numbers of otherwise sane, functional people. Some of these abductions reports are so bizarre, and with so many similarities to BVM encounters, that many thoughtful researchers have abandoned the extraterrestrial hypothesis in favor of the metaphysical or interdimensional hypothesis.

Actually, nobody has to conclude anything of the sort. We can, instead, chalk these rising numbers of charlatans, deceivers, and fakers to a climate of post-truth gullibility.

Why did Steve Van Nattan want the Aquarium on his site?

The real mystery, of course, is why Steve Van Nattan even wanted this Aquarium post on his site at all. This is definitely not his usual topic of interest. In fact, he seems to have an extremely quirky collection of beliefs. But I saw little to suggest he goes for the usual fundagelical Endtimes fantasies.

Halloween hysteria, yes. Cabal of Satanic Wiccans (or Wiccan Satanists, Whatevs) (CSWWSW), yes. Oppression of women, definitely. One World Government/New World Order, oh boy yes. Obnoxious auto-download music files, 100%.

Endtimes, not so much!

It took some time, but I found the paper in context. It lives in a section called “UFOs and Devils, and Fundamentalist Baptists.” He presents it as part of a subsection called “A Collection of Papers and Observations.” For reference, he thinks Fundamentalist Baptists are demon-controlled somehow. He’s that hardcore. He writes:

The thing I want you to see though, is the “evidence” used by all of the guruistic Fundamental Baptist and Pentecostal gurus of UFOlogy.  UFOs are real because Satan is real, but when accepted as “wonders,” they are lies (2 Thessalonians 2:9– Even him, whose coming is after the working of Satan with all power and signs and lying wonders,).  If this stuff starts to sound believable to you, plead the Blood of Jesus Christ over you, and, WHAM, you will suddenly lose all faith in it.  If you are NOT born again by Jesus Christ, this stuff will sound very reasonable to you.

Well, I must say this: I don’t believe in any of his blahblah at all. And yet none of this Aviary or Aquarium bullshit sounds reasonable to me!

Overall, though, it seems like he included the paper simply to demonstrate how deceived he thinks UFO believers are for thinking Christianity is involved at all. It’s just cosmic irony that we learned about this amazing paper this way. We found it not because a random Christian conspiracy theorist liked it, but because he didn’t like it at all.

Some things are just meant to be.

Speculations about the slow death of the Aviary and Aquarium.

As I’ve mentioned, one doesn’t see any other articles out of Vince Johnson–just as my friend Jimmy vanished from the UFO scene, Johnson seems to have vanished as well. A pity. He apparently believed in Dan Smith’s vision of the Aquarium. He thought for sure that an over-conspiracy theory unfolded behind all the noise and clamor of all these other competing, smaller-scale conspiracy claims. Eventually, he believed that the Aviary was real. It would have been interesting to see a post-Y2K update from him.

I suspect the Aviary and Aquarium just collapsed under their own weight. Eventually, someone must have wondered, to use the 1980s catchphrase, where’s the beef? And nobody involved in these conspiracies really had any. Plus, the old-timey Endtimes nonsense really would turn off a lot of people in UFO circles, I suspect. It adds a chintzy, cheap-looking element to these otherwise transcendent ideas.

But I’ve no doubt at all of this last point I want to make. Old conspiracy theories never die. They just shrink in audiences and profitability. Someone, somewhere out there is right now, as we speak, breathlessly pinning print-outs and articles to his Aquarium-themed wall of crazy. That person’s organizing Aquarium seminars. And writing letters to CIA officers. And blaming Aviary members for missing the forest for the trees.

Besides, we all know what the best Aquarium of all time is.

I love this album so much.

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Thank you so much for listening, reading, and being a part of Roll to Disbelieve!

Captain Cassidy

Captain Cassidy is a Gen-X ex-Christian and writer. She writes about how people engage with science, religion, art, and each other. She lives in Idaho with her husband, Mr. Captain, and their squawky orange tabby cat, Princess Bother Pretty Toes. And at any given time, she is running out of bookcase space.


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