Aquar­ium’s sen­sory as­sault thrills

Noth­ing can pre­pare you for the sense of the­atre of­fered by the dif­fer­ent dis­plays, writes TIARA WAL­TERS

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - PEOPLE -

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.

PIC­TURES: ROGER HOR­ROCKS

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.

NOVEM­BER 30 2013

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.

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