When I was a student living in London, I had such withdrawal symptoms from the ocean that I sought to feed my addiction the only way I knew how — by getting a weekend job working at the city’s aquarium. There has always been debate about the ethicality of aquariums, and I agree strongly that certain species should not be kept in captivity. But it’s also undeniable that if managed correctly, aquariums have fantastic potential for educating the general public about marine life and contributing to conservation initiatives. I am a firm believer that education, particularly of the next generation, is the only way our oceans will survive. With that in mind, I applied for a position delivering talks about the aquarium’s exhibits to its visitors. During the year that I spent there, I remained spellbound by the creatures that I worked alongside, inspired by my coworkers (most of whom were fantastically more knowledgeable than me) and encouraged by the positive interactions that I witnessed every day between the public and the animals in the aquarium. When I left, I took away an incredible number of memories, most of them positive and some of them unforgettable. Here are a few of my favorites.
The most exciting part of the aquarium for me was the part hidden from general view, the quarantine area where new or recuperating animals were kept, where some tanks acted as fish nurseries and where the food for each display was prepared. All of this took place deep in the belly of subterranean London, and it amazed me that such a wonderland existed beneath the Thames and the streets full of oblivious businessmen. The diets of our residents were very specific, from enriched squid for the sharks, to grapes and nuts for the vegetarian piranhas and meat for the crocodiles. The smells of each as they were prepared mixed with the saline tang of saltwater, and tanks and enclosures of all sizes housed an ever-changing roster of fascinating inhabitants as animals were taken on and off display.
As I was being shown around the premises on my first day, I happened to glance into one large tank in the quarantine area and spotted my very first baby sharks. They were eight bonnetheads, newly born to one of the females in the ocean tank and perfect replicas of the adults they would eventually become. Taken from the main tank to prevent them from becoming prey to its larger residents, they were shorter than my forearm from the tip of their tails to their tiny hammers. As we approached, they recognized our presence by swimming to the edge in search of the cockles on which they fed. They were absolutely flawless, and over the next months I found myself irresistibly drawn back to their pool whenever I had a spare second between duties.
The bonnetheads were just one of the marvels I encountered in the quarantine area; other highlights included a host of other elasmobranch babies, from Port Jackson sharks to bamboo cat sharks, a feisty alligator gar waiting to be rehomed into his new exhibit and one of our crocodiles recovering from the effects of a lovers’ spat with her tank mate. As for the best single moment of my many hours whiled away behind-the-scenes? Watching the birth of a tiny dogfish, first, as it struggled to break out of it’s mermaid’s purse egg, then, for a few heart-stopping moments as it lay lifeless on the bottom of the tank, and finally as it snapped back into being and its gills began to oscillate with the very first breaths of its brand-new life.
It’s a common belief amongst humans that fish (and many other animals) have no feelings; that they have memories capable of recording no more than three seconds’ history. I am no scientist, but I do know that many of the fish I worked alongside at the aquarium appeared to have definite personalities, and a memory capacity that allowed them to associate our red uniform shirts with feeding time. There was Caspar, the long-nosed butterflyfish who would shoot impatient jets of water at anyone he felt was taking too long to deliver his meal, and who would take flakes gently from between our fingertips. There was Ed, the giraffe-nosed catfish from the Amazon display, who would hover at the surface during feeding time and refused to eat or leave until he received tickles on the top of his sensitive snout.
I loved feeding time, and although technically the role of the company’s aquarists, I was often allowed to take on the easy tasks like distributing flakes to the coral reef fish, and always volunteered to help with the more technical business of feeding the aquarium’s eight larger shark species. It was then that our residents’ personalities really became apparent. Shark feeding was the best, as it involved sitting on a platform over the humid waters of the tank and target feeding each individual with whatever their diet required using a long handled grab-stick. Zorro, the youngest of the sharks, was both the greediest and the cheekiest; Georgina, our ageing sand-tiger, was like any old lady — fussy and particular about her diet and always reluctant to eat the things best for her health. Many of the characteristics of our animals were surprising, and completely opposite to the accepted stereotype. The piranhas, for example, were a timid bunch, slow to take food, and when aquarists in long waders were cleaning their tanks they cowered in a group at the far end of the display. Once, I was allowed to don mask and fins and enter the ocean tank to help clean, and it was not the sharks but our two green turtles that proved to be the biggest menace, pecking at us with their beaks in an attempt to coerce us into providing food.
As well as having memories and personalities, I’d also argue that some marine creatures have advanced emotions, too. The aquarium’s octopus, for example, had to be kept endlessly entertained — without stimulation, she became bored, and when bored, she became self-destructive. The team’s aquarists were continuously tasked with finding new ways to challenge her intelligence, and at Christmastime she amazed visitors by unwrapping her very own presents in the form of her food shut inside a screw-top container and tied with ribbon. Above all, my time at the aquarium left me convinced that we should not assume fish aren’t conscious beings just because they can’t communicate in the same way that land creatures can.
Sharing The Magic
Although the animals were my favorite part of working at the aquarium, the humans who came to visit constituted a close second, especially the children in whose eyes I watched the magic of the aquarium take light. Touching animals was not allowed with the exception of the tidal pools, where, under direct supervision, guests could interact with hardy anemones, starfish and small crabs. From tiny toddlers to wrinkled retirees, the simple delight that people got from being able to experience the marine world firsthand was incredible. We are lucky, as divers, to immerse ourselves in the real thing, but for much of the general public, displays like these are the closest they’ll ever come to the underwater world. Most days that I worked at the aquarium, parents would have to drag their enthralled children away from their new starfish friends, and every time it happened, I hoped that I might be witnessing the planting of the seed that would create the next generation of conservationists, divers and marine biologists.
Every day, my colleagues and I delivered talks about the importance of shark conservation, or the threats posed by humanity to the world’s coral reefs, or the value of sustainable fishing. I watched guests of all ages, races, religions, income levels and genders begin to understand the vital need to conserve our oceans; I watched people enter the ocean exhibit afraid of sharks, and leave it afraid of losing them. Often, I’d recognize familiar faces drawn back again and again to the aquarium, sometimes families anxious to hear the latest in a certain animal’s story, sometimes a lonely elderly person who found solace by the display window where they would remain for hours on end.
The great enjoyment people experience in aquariums makes me think that they have their place, as long as they are ethically run. It is that enjoyment, after all, that gets people to care about our oceans, and only by caring will they ever seek to conserve them.