Why We Need Aquariums

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7 minutes of reading

There is no guarantee that people will care if they know, but it is certain they cannot care if they do not know. —Dr Sylvia Earle  

Growing up in Zimbabwe, the sea was a distant place for me as a child, far removed from my everyday experience and associated with holidays on the south coast of KwaZulu-Natal. Memories of these times are of exploring tidal pools, building sandcastles, and being tumbled by seemingly “gigantic” waves. The sea both frightened and intrigued me, but this was only in relation to what I saw and experienced at the surface—the infinite expanse of water with its tumbling waves. It would be many years before I learned of and indeed saw just an inkling of the great diversity of life that exists beneath the waves.  

While relocating to Cape Town in 1994 brought me closer to the ocean, my appreciation of its beauty and the life it supports was still largely from a terrestrial point of view. However, in 1995, an opportunity was offered to me that would exert a powerful influence on my life and immerse me both literally and figuratively in another world. The Two Oceans Aquarium opened its doors and unveiled a realm of life that I would never have believed existed. The more I have learned about the animals from the ocean depths, the greater my intrigue and hunger for knowledge and the deeper my commitment to advocating for changes in attitudes and behaviour toward the oceans and our planet as a whole.  

However, in spite of this life-changing experience and my dedication to the goals of the Two Oceans Aquarium, there are times when I question the existence and role of aquariums and zoos and the fact that these facilities hold animals in captivity. Having disliked zoos intensely as an adolescent, how can I work in an aquarium as an adult? Was I able to accept a position at the Aquarium because the majority of the animals are fishes and somehow they don’t quite have the same appeal as tigers and elephants? What makes an aquarium any different to a zoo? These incongruities challenge me and I have taken time to reflect on my principles regarding these issues.  

Firstly, why is it that we apply different standards to different animals? When is an animal not worthy of our “sympathy”? The Aquarium is home to more than 3,000 individual animals, yet we have only received comments or complaints about 26 of these creatures being kept on display. Why don’t animals such as anemones and crabs elicit a sympathetic or “they’re so cute” response from us?  It seems that we only identify with those animals whose physical qualities we find endearing and vaguely similar to our own. Perhaps we identify more with some animals simply because they are more familiar to us—knowledge of terrestrial life is far greater than that of oceanic life. Sometimes our feelings are based purely on ignorance and lack of knowledge about the animal’s lifestyle and chosen natural habitat. For example, octopuses squeeze themselves into tiny rock crevices to protect themselves from predators, yet when they are displayed in an aquarium exhibit that replicates their natural habitat, people complain that it is cruel to keep an octopus in a confined space.  

When we anthropomorphize certain animals, we attribute human emotions and qualities to them. Thus, our feelings toward animals in captivity may actually say more about us than about them. Is it that we are confronted with our own fear of being confined? Are we reminded that we have the power to manipulate animals to our own benefit  (including farming, fishing, domestication of animals, pets, etc.), which evokes guilt disguised as anger? Perhaps it is simply sadness that human beings have necessitated the existence of zoos and aquariums in order to protect the environment and animals from further degradation and extinction by our own hands.  

At times of such emotion and questioning, I have rationally considered the role of the Two Oceans Aquarium and thought deeply about the impact it has had on my life and others.  Since the Aquarium opened in 1995, more than 2 million children have visited it, mostly in school groups. Many of these children are historically and economically disadvantaged and some are from homes for the physically and mentally handicapped.  

These children live in close proximity to the ocean, yet many of them have never been to the beach. Many of them will never experience the joy of seeing underwater through a mask, let alone scuba diving or travelling to exotic destinations to see animals in the wild. Some people argue that it is possible to learn about the oceans and marine life through films and the Internet. However, if this were indeed the case, then there is no basis for the hugely successful safari tourism industry in eastern and southern Africa. And many of the children who have come to the Aquarium do not have access to books, television, or Internet.  

Do those of us who are privileged with a formal education and sufficient financial stability have the right to further impoverish these children by denying them the possibility to marvel at the wonder of nature in the Aquarium? Nothing can replace the incredible impact and sheer delight of interacting with living animals. It is these first-hand sensory experiences in childhood that are vital for the later formation of positive environmental attitudes and behaviours, which are essential if we are to protect the environment in years to come.  

The Aquarium provides an opportunity for children, and indeed all visitors, to observe animals in ways that would never be possible in the wild. We all know that penguins live around the Cape coastline, but how often do we get to see these animals at such close range? It is only a handful of privileged divers who have witnessed the penguins as they swim underwater. Even Boulders, where one can view penguins in their natural habitat, is for the privileged few. Incredible as it may seem, even though I have been fortunate to have both these opportunities, I would not fully appreciate these animals without the background of invaluable educational interactions that the Aquarium makes possible.  

However, in spite of the value of these unique experiences, I could not work at the Two Oceans Aquarium if I was not convinced that the interests of the animals are of paramount importance to the people who are responsible for their care. The staff demonstrate time and time again their passion and commitment to the animals—one such occasion was when the first rockhopper penguin hatched and needed hands-on care to ensure her survival. The Aquarium’s rescue and rehabilitation work with turtles also requires an enormous amount of time and care from the staff. But the efforts are worth it—seeing rehabilitated turtles being released back into the wild is a heartening experience for all of us.  

The role and obligation of the Two Oceans Aquarium as a public aquarium is to showcase the beauty of life in the oceans, to raise awareness of the current devastation of the oceans, and to instill a sense of custodianship in all our visitors so that they will conserve and protect the oceans. Despite the ethical questions, I firmly believe in what we stand for: sustainability through environmental education and conservation. I do not believe that we exist solely for entertainment purposes—in which case, I would not work here and neither would the majority of the staff. I do believe, however, that if we lived in an ideal world where humans lived in harmony with nature and did not pollute, exploit, overconsume, etc., we wouldn’t need aquariums. Sadly, that ideal world doesn’t exist and therefore we need places such as aquariums where people can more easily learn about the marine world and hopefully appreciate it more fully.   

The Aquarium’s mission is to inspire action for the future well-being of our oceans and this we do through various initiatives and campaigns such as Rethink the Bag, beach cleanups, showcasing renewable energy alternatives such as solar panels, and rescuing seals from life-threatening nooses and sunfish from draining docks.  

We grant free entry to a wide range of groups including children suffering from terminal diseases, handicapped people and their essential helpers, to staff who work at other conservation-oriented facilities. We also hand out more than 300 complimentary tickets every year to other organisations to use as prizes for their fundraising efforts.

In terms of environmental education, over and above the two discovery centres, which host in excess of 65,000 school children a year, the Aquarium runs two outreach programmes—Oceans in Motion and Smart Living. The Oceans in Motion outreach transports live marine animals such as starfish, sea urchins, and sea anemones to under-resourced schools free of charge. Last year it visited nearly 17 000 children in 132 schools. The Aquarium also runs free education courses for school children. 

In addition, the Aquarium has also contributed funding for research on sevengill sharks and acoustic telemetry on leervis migrations, has entered into a partnership with the Khayelitsha-based Mdzananda Animal Clinic and is assisting a young entrepreneur, Mzu Lembeni, with his township tour business.  

The Two Oceans Aquarium is on a journey, trying in every possible way to reduce its environmental footprint and to do things in an environmentally responsible way.  The Aquarium is a certified Diamond member of the Heritage Environmental Rating Programme. Diamond status is the highest level of achievement in this internationally recognised eco-labelling programme, and indicates that a facility is continually striving to reduce the impact of its operations on the environment and on local communities. The Aquarium is currently one of only three Diamond-status facilities in South Africa.  

The Two Oceans Aquarium has left an indelible impression on my life and has changed forever my perception of the role of modern aquariums. Without the influence of the Aquarium, it is probable that, together with the majority of people, I would have remained oblivious of the incredible life the oceans support and would be significantly deprived in knowledge and experience as a result. I believe that aquariums are vital if we have any hope of saving the diversity of life on this planet.  

I fully agree with the sentiments expressed by American oceanographer, Sylvia Earle and Senegalese conservationist Baba Dioum who, although originating from diverse backgrounds and experience, hold the same philosophy regarding the educational importance of the living animal. Their message is simple: without learning and understanding as much as we can about the natural world, we cannot possibly care enough to ensure its survival.  

I firmly believe that the real and living animals we are able to see and come to know in aquariums are ambassadors for their species. They are messengers and teachers and, because of them, I have become an ambassador for the environment, caring deeply about the future of natural populations and delighting in seeing their kind in the wild. As Baba Dioum so eloquently says: In the end, we will conserve only what we love, We will love only what we understand, We will understand only what we are taught.    

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