Aquarium’s sensory assault thrills
Nothing can prepare you for the sense of theatre offered by the different displays, writes TIARA WALTERS
WHEN we were kids my brother and I had two goldfish, Cheeky and Mister Miyagi. Growing up in Joburg we were landlocked children, and my nature-loving parents hoped these two petshop specials would help sustain our connection to fish and life in the ocean.
But I never did feel much for those two little personality vacuums, trapped as they were in their tiny, empty universe with nothing but a petrified kelp forest and plastic sunken treasure chest for company. Waiting. For fish flakes. Or Godot. Turns out my childhood goldfish tank was scant preparation for the sensory assault that is Cape Town’s Two Oceans Aquarium.
When I walk into the penguin exhibit, a fantastical recreation of a river’s journey from source to sea, the pong of pilchards and 24 braying donkeys assails me.
It’s penguin feeding time, and it never ceases to amaze me why the fun police ever saw fit to change the jackass penguin’s name to “African penguin” – it may stand a mere foot tall, but it sounds like a farmyard animal 20 times its size.
“Meet Teddy,” says Hayley McLellan, the aquarium’s “penguin lady” and environmental campaigner. Teddy is one of six Rockhoppers – a sub-Antarctic penguin species with red eyes, a black mullet and egg-yellow plumes for brows – that live in the rookery next to the African penguins. He’s about 13 or 14 years old, and waddles painfully on arthritic feet.
“Teddy came to us when he was about a year or two old after washing up on a local beach. He developed arthritis because both his feet had been bound with wire,” says McLellan, a sinewy 44-year-old with shortcropped dark hair, penetrating gaze and forearms littered with bite marks.
“Southern Ocean trawlers will occasionally pick rockies up and take them on board as pets because they think they’re friendly little birds, or they’re lost. Or the crew eat them. Sometimes they’re tethered on board, which is probably why Teddy was found with bound feet,” she explains.
While the aquarium’s no match for the wild, they seem to have it good here, these penguins – in the nearby rookery, the 18 African penguins lord over a Lilliputian ocean with mechanically generated waves. As McLellan puts it, the penguins live in a “protected environment”.
“There are no predators, they’re fed three times a day, get a variety of vitamins each week, and a vet once a month.”
She shoves a capsule of Devil’s Claw, a natural arthritic remedy, into Teddy’s pilchard tail and adds: “African penguins can live in captivity for 30 years, but only 10 to 15 in the wild.”
Next door Zuki and Ayoba, two adult African penguins, are getting restless. They’ve spotted the humans – and want out. Hatched and hand-raised by staff, they don’t dig the other African penguins too much. Their morning walk through the aquarium’s cool blue halls before the doors open to the public is a daily highlight. This is when they interact with staff and volunteers busy in preparation, some of whom make a great fuss of the little birds as McLellan puts out a tiny gangway and leads them on to the rest of the floor.
When there’s no one to play with, they appear fascinated by the exhibits, especially the shoals of outsized yellowtail, dusky kob and black musselcracker in the I&J Predator Exhibit – perhaps in the way you and I might be transfixed by giant Neapolitan pizzas drifting by.
There’s a real sense of theatre to these displays behind glass – sometimes even the most reticent of the aquarium’s 250-odd species take centre stage.
A solitary octopus makes a brief appearance for the pleasure of a passing audience – the round, milk-white suckers on its tentacles tentatively tasting the glass. Like the aquarium’s five ragged-tooth sharks, the octopuses are wild-caught, staying at the aquarium for only a few months and then returning to the sea.
Nearby, a Greek tragedy unfolds as a Knysna seahorse lassos his tail around another’s neck in a masterful Hollywood Western stranglehold.
But the aquarium’s bog-standard bakvissies could be its most spellbinding residents. “Fish don’t get along, generally,” operations manager Tinus Beukes reveals when he offers to show me around.
What ensues is the most instructive, if peculiar, discourse on the mechanics of aquatic boxing matches.
“It’s a bit like managing a classroom of kids,” he continues. “You see it often in tropical fish – they can change sex. So you’re a female, but when you’re big enough to defend your own territory, you turn into a male. Now you want to own your own area, and defend it against others.
“So everyone in the tank is happy. It’s a community tank, okay? But one day two pencil surgeonfish start fighting each other. Now you’ll find, say, a powder blue surgeon, waiting peacefully all along, but suddenly this oke sees the pencil surgeons have started boxing a bit and so he thinks, ‘Jeezlike, something’s happening’, so he goes and looks for his own buddy. And then they start boxing too. Next morning you get there and they’ve all started boxing each other.”
The enchanting, otherworldly spectacle of the aquarium’s exhibits sets the tone for its learning centre, too – a mad marinebiology lab of inflatable globes, flashcards with cryptic clues like “vis”, and choreographed ecosystems where dog and seal skulls cohabit with a tub of margarine and a giant deep-sea crab mounted by “Marine Souvenirs in Hobart, Tasmania”.
A stuffed Wandering Albatross, suspended from the roof, soars over a sea of desks, wings outstretched and webbed feet neatly tucked beneath its fading tail.
Our teacher, Khonzani Lembeni, acquaints us with the touch pool at the centre of our desk and invites us to caress its contents – life-like starfish, anemones and empty perlemoen shells. Lembeni’s lively, 45-minute class also covers the impact of stuffing plastic down drains, which may find its way to the ocean.
My aquarium tour culminates in a visit to its most charismatic drawcard, the I&J Predator Exhibit. Here scuba divers can plunge into a shiver of ragged-tooth sharks without a cage.
If you’re a standard day visitor, you can park yourself in the gargantuan tunnel that curls around the exhibit, and stare at its residents as they undulate along in a sleepy, five-knot current.
As we make our way down the wet, slippery stairs to the Predator Exhibit’s diving platform, I get lost in a reverie over whether slip-slops were the best choice of attire for this kind of activity – only to lose my footing and nose-dive into the platform.
I manage to hold my camera aloft but drop all my notes for this article in a twomillion-litre watery grave roiling with sharks and other big-game fish.
I’ve reported from a few hairy spots: running from rabid fur seals on a volcanic island; or haring down an Antarctic mountain on a single-bed mattress, say.
So you’d think I’d know how to hang on to my notebook by now. But I guess you’re never too old to learn. Or write an article entirely from memory.
HEADS UP: There’s hardly anything children like more than the clownfish, better know as ‘Nemo’, and this exhibit is one of the Aquarium’s most popular – not least because visitors can crawl into the centre of the display to get up close and personal with the fish made famous by Disney.
SOLITARY VISITOR: This lone octopus makes a brief appearance for the pleasure of a passing audience. Like the aquarium’s five ragged-tooth sharks, the octopuses are wildcaught, staying at the aquarium for only a few months and then returning to the sea.
TUNNEL VISION: Children watch spellbound in the gargantuan tunnel which curls around the I&J Predator Exhibit, the aquarium’s most charismatic drawcard. Here one of the residents undulates along in the sleepy, five-knot current.