Thursday, August 07, 2008

To swim, or not to swim?

That is the Question!

As an aquarist, the following clip never ceases to amaze me.
At first glance, it's just an ordinary scene of a fish tank during feeding time, with some fish skimming the food from the surface and a frenzy of smaller critters scrambling for the sinking leftovers.
But upon closer observation, the surface skimmers turn out to be Whale Sharks and the frantic minnows below, Manta and Eagle Rays, Giant Trevallies and there are even several Giant Groupers like our Ratu Rua and Ratu Tolu!

I have to confess that my knee-jerk reaction upon seeing it for the first time was that of any old-timer elitist. That is, righteous indignation.
How DARE they imprison these wonderful animals, many of which necessitate habitats spanning whole oceans! How DARE they trivialize the magic of encounters for which yours truly had to travel the High Seas and brave the elements for years!

But then, did I raise the same ethical objections upon seeing my first Big Cats and Bears in the Zoo? Many of which equally face extinction or require equally large territories? And how about the Apes, many of which were intelligent enough to grasp, and were clearly unhappy about their captive status?
Of course, I didn't.
I had been, rightfully, sold on the notion that modern Zoos make a valuable contribution by raising the public's awareness of the need for Conservation and often act as repositories, or even breeding stations for the last individuals of particular species.

Could it be the same for such Aquaria?
The answer is unequivocally: Yes it is!
Like most Zoo visitors who will never join a safari, most Aquarium visitors will never learn to dive and this is their only chance to ever witness those animals in person and acquire a special affinity and appreciation for them in the process.

This particular institution, the Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium in Japan, has been successfully keeping Whale Sharks and Manta Rays since the late 80ies. One of their Whale Sharks has been on display for more than 10 years and recently, they were even able to announce the first-ever captive birth of a Manta Ray. All very convincing, and very impressive indeed!
And let's face it: any contribution to changing the perceptions of the ocean-pillaging Japanese in particular, and Asians in general can only be applauded!

Churaumi's pendant in the western hemisphere, the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta, houses Whale Sharks, Goliath Groupers and even Great Hammerheads , along with a plethora of smaller fishes. They appear to be very active in Whale Shark Conservation and despite the indignant opposition of the tree-(or is it: algae-?) hugging faction of the scientific community, I must confess that I'm rather impressed by what they do.

But now, here comes my dilemma:
In their wisdom, the Aquarium has started a program allowing a dozen swimmers and divers a day to go swimming with the gentle giants. To put it in perspective, this compares with approx. 5,000 maintenance dives by the aquarium's staff each year. Obviously, the latter are necessary - but are the former?

Check it out:

The customers are obviously extatic and bubble with superlatives about their unique experience.
But the great Jean-Michel Custeau himself is not amused. Nor is the token Shark expert, supreme Shark attack, meteorological and now obviously, fish-keeping multi-guru George Burgess.

Normally, the latter fact alone would be ample justification for me to join the faction in favor of the swimming - but I remain skeptical.

Is there really any upside in throwing in a bunch of "divers" (check again...) at the risk , real or perceived, of harassing, or even infecting or otherwise hurting the already stressed captive animals?
Apart from satisfying the customers' curiosity, and egos - and obviously, generating additional income?
Is there anything to be learned from such an experience (thank you Jean-Michel)?
Will Conservation profit from it?
I mean, additionally?

Not a chance.
Let's be honest: it quacks like a duck and swims like a duck. To witness: "A diver named Kevin Chung broke into a flailing aquatic break-dance. " Indeed.
It's just cheap and gratuitous entertainment, a silly and frivolous circus, a stupid afterthought.
And demeaning on top of that.
I ask: where is the Respect?

Others of course disagree.
But then, upon closer inspection, all those arguments in favor just don't hold up. Those aims can be equally achieved by keeping the public where it belongs.

And that is, on the outside of the tank, to watch and not touch.
In total Awe and Amazement.


Anonymous said...

This post sums up the growing discord out there for aquaria that allow divers in to meet the animals.

They never built these sites for commercial human and animal encounters in the first place.

Why not allow it? Build a site devoted to it, not hybridize an entire institution for the sake of a few more $$$ in the bank.

"If you're going to run a whore house don't disguise it as a church"

DaShark said...

Indeed, why not.
Like it or not, that's where it's heading anyway.

But animals are not toys and the challenge will be to steer it in the right direction. Words that come to mind besides Fun and Safety are Education and Conservation. But also, Dignity and Respect.

In view of the public's obvious predilection for cheap and asinine entertainment, though, I'm not going to hold my breath.

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