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The aquarium: educational or delusional?


small hammerhead shark in aquarium tunnel tank

Under the real sea it’s calm and quiet. As you might expect. Humans are guests in that domain.

It’s not entirely quiet though.

There are sounds. The sound of sand particles falling from the mouths of fishes, as they collect morsels from the bottom. The sand sprinkling down creates a strange falling sound.

It’s not like rain or leaf fall, perhaps the resonance in water makes this sound unique.

The peace is also shattered by the visitors. They bring with them gurgling bubbles, the chime of metal on metal and the disturbing vibrations of their exhalations.

This is no yoga class.

There is clanging of the anchor chain on their vessel above. Hissing, splashing and gurgling.

But the absence of the noises of everyday above-water-life does create a sort of peace on human terms.

I wonder whether fish curse these new neighbours and wait patiently for their departure. Wondering what the hell these ridiculous creatures are?

Badly designed, ungainly, un-streamlined, bobbing about with broad movements and exploding farts of released air bubbles.

I’ve seen the fish reappear on reefs and wrecks as the noisiest divers ascend to surface. Reminiscent of those cow cartoons watching the tourists disappear.

NOUN (plural aquaria /-rɪə/ or aquariums)

1A transparent tank of water in which live fish and other water creatures and plants are kept.
1.1A building containing tanks of live fish of different species.

mid 19th century: from Latin, neuter of aquarius ‘of water’, on the pattern of vivarium.

Yet what of the inmates of these man made glass coffins?

Underwater inside in the dark, the gloom replicates the seas.

But they miss the abandoned plastic bags, man’s rubbish strewn across the sands, choking the unsuspecting victim.

Aquaria are also idyllic, false representations of well stocked seas that are far harder to find in real life.

No abandoned fishing nets here, no jagged hooks to tear innocent mouths, no harsh knives to rip fins and flukes for expensive soup.

This isn’t what the sea is really like. It’s a placebo to help people ignore the ocean plight.

Do the fishes peer back at us in wonder? Who is the visitor, who is observed by whom?

Do the aquatic residents find us curious and bizarre?

What strikes me in every aquarium I visit is the noise. There is no peace. There is hubbub and cursory attention.

Look darling, an octopus!” that flinches at your careless flash, unknown underwater.

The octopus withdraws deeper into a clichéd pottery urn, disdainfully hiding. An intelligent creature with abilities far beyond ours for camouflage and hunting yet stuffed inside that urn.

Most people are passing through. They have another agenda. A time frame. A plane to catch. A list of unusual creatures to tick off.

Aquariums bring me pain.

Though I still visit.

Ideally sitting in the dark motionless.

Sadly gazing at creatures I’d prefer to free. Enduring the pain as a reminder of my good fortune. I’ve hung motionless face to face with sea turtles, mantas open mouthed and dolphins at play.


A reminder to me to respect my planet and continue to do my best.

I know those animals are better off than their captive peers. But without these prisoners what chance for the visitors to encounter such bizarre life forms in years to come when all are extinct?

I find aquaria like torture chambers. Pelagic ballerinas metaphorically pacing inside the glass. Round and round they swim, surrounded by artificial reef structures and fake corals. At the mercy of the temperature adjustments, the pumps and filters that sustain their artificial eco systems but that can be so fragile that a power cut will terminate all within.

Their obsessive compulsive repetitive behaviours so obviously stress related.

Pelagic means neither at the bottom nor the top of the sea neither close to the bottom nor near the shore. Fish so comfortable in that space that people find so off putting. No landmarks, no familiar features, nothing but blue.

A fish like a bat fish is in her element when there’s nothing there but blue. She doesn’t need an anchor line or boat. But in the aquarium she’s surrounded in the equivalent of a matchbox. When people are incarcerated there’s no comparison to the cage of this animal.

The journey of a turtle whose life began in Costa Rica can follow the length of the South America continent.

What human normally travels that sort of distance unaided?

We know so little about ocean going species. Whale sharks travel between continents easily always on the go.

When I see a baby hammerhead in a tank it’s not awe I feel, but despair. What’s her time frame, her sentence? How can this juvenile’s future be anything but bleak?

It cannot stay in this pool until adulthood it’s going to grow too large. What will happen to it when it’s too big? Burgers in the canteen perhaps or risky transportation to another facility?

The intensely sophisticated navigation system in its unusual shaped head completely obsolete in here.

Worse still what happens when the only hammerhead sharks left on earth are inmates?

I guess I’d like to see people required to spend time here in silent enduring contemplation. Aquaria visits should be a punishment schedule for those who litter, who pollute, who destroy, who develop, who demolish.

Aquaria should be visited like memorials to nature genocide. Bleak reminders of the horrors that man has inflicted on the earth.

Serious human offenders could perhaps be introduced to that shark tank, or meet the piranhas up close and personal with small cuts on their fingers. As fish stocks are depleted perhaps the aquaria populations could be sustained on a different type of fish food.

Man burger anyone?



20 comments on “The aquarium: educational or delusional?

  1. P.E.A.C.E.
    April 16, 2014

    Brilliant honest courageous writing! I agree completely, and cannot go to zoos or aquariums. While we had an aquarium for a short while when the kids were young, I can’t do it anymore. It is a death sentence. Like keeping birds in cages. Barbaric. Oh how I love your honesty! “No abandoned fishing nets here, no jagged hooks to tear innocent mouths, no harsh knives to rip fins and flukes for expensive soup.” Yes I wonder if those who dare frequent such places are blind and numb to the real tragedies happening every day… things we must fight and not ignore amidst such gleaming examples of false perfection. And octopus and cuttlefish are so amazing… yet too many bird owners don’t even know what they are buying for budgies to sharpen their beaks on! Being ‘buyer conscious’ also prevents me from using peat moss in my gardens. Oops.. big comment. Sorry. This awesome post gets me going. Thank you! I love it.


    • lizard100
      April 16, 2014

      Thank you. I’m really touched that you read it and understood the issue. It was a bit dark so I was nervous posting it. They make me very sad.


  2. Kitchen-Counter-Culture
    April 16, 2014

    This is beautiful. Thank you for posting it. I remember reading about some Nazi project to save ethnographic items for a future museum of Jewish Life. Your piece brought this to mind. Coincidentally I visted a zoo last Sunday. I found myself feeling that at least, in the concentric ecologies of loss and death that is our planet in this Anthropocene time, that we could have a place to experience the magic of creation. But then my husband pointed out, zoos are not that, they are a place of ritualised interaction between humans. I found myself taking a load of pictures, not of animals but of people and their expensive devices taking pictures of animals, and of people wearing clothing in animal print. I wasn’t a fun companion. You wouldn’t have been either. We would have had a great time together! 🙂 xxx


    • lizard100
      April 16, 2014

      That’s a brilliant response. Thank you. I’m really touched that you saw where I was going with this. Yep. I tend to feel like I’m in a really somber place. Usually surrounded by folk who are totally oblivious to their location. I almost want to tell them what they’re really looking at. I needs to write about it and now thanks to these comments and feedback I’m really glad I did!


  3. sadnesstheory
    April 16, 2014

    Hello again, so what about the SUnshine award? I just nominated you? A blogger to blogger award for positive and creative inspiration:
    I hope you’ll accept pass on the award. Let me know!


  4. Debra
    April 16, 2014

    There is a lot of eye candy at an aquarium but I just can’t deal with imagining their distress.


    • lizard100
      April 16, 2014

      It’s true. There are so many lovely colours and odd looking creature. It’s just very challenging.


  5. tootlepedal
    April 16, 2014

    I love aquaria but I share your doubts about them.


  6. Rambling Woods
    April 16, 2014

    I don’t go too zoos and have disliked the circus since I was a child. I feel the same about aquariums and boats that take you out whale watching…making me a huge kill joy…


    • lizard100
      April 17, 2014

      No awareness is the key. The more people who are thinking the better.


  7. solarbeez
    April 17, 2014

    I hesitate to write this. We are taking the grand kids to the aquarium on Sunday. First time in three years. We feel it’s important for them to see marine life while we still have it. Fishing is a big industry here. Every time there is an effort to set aside a marine reserve, a place where marine life can be safe from human predators, the fishing industry shuts down any chance for it. I would think it would be in their best interests to reserve an area for fish to recover their numbers. “We don’t want government telling us where we can’t fish.” Big picture thoughts…we’ve got to have a conversation about reproduction. Can earth handle 9 billion people? We are headed that way.


    • lizard100
      April 17, 2014

      It’s good that you are going. For children every opportunity to foyer an interest in the ocean is important. So many never even see the sea. I agree the 9 billion is too many. Not sure what will happen in the future.


  8. Yes, it’s a constant controversy – whether the conservation/research/awareness work of zoos and aquariums is enough to offset and justify the capture of the animals. And of course it depends in part on how the zoo/aquarium is run – there are big differences. The pressure should always be there.


    • lizard100
      May 16, 2014

      It’s hard. Learning is important. But the creatures make me sad.


  9. carolamarashi
    May 16, 2014

    Reblogged this on Heart Whisperer Carola Marashi M.A. and commented:
    So deep and magnified. Like being actually underwater. Thank you!


    • lizard100
      May 21, 2014

      Thank you so much for the reblog. The underwater world is so special!


  10. litadoolan
    May 19, 2014

    Congrats on this stunning post that asks so many important questions. I love the context of ‘pelagic’ and I hadn’t considered how true it is that man finds these location free creatures a bit of a challenge!

    Bravo on putting this question so clearly regarding the conservation benefits of keeping rare species in visitor attractions. Big chunks of food for thought!


    • lizard100
      May 19, 2014

      Thank you so much. This was one of those special posts for me. Lots of great comments have come in. It’s really positive to have this type of response.


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This entry was posted on April 16, 2014 by in conservation, environment, ocean and tagged , , , , , .

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