My Dunk into the Shark Tank. A Students Perspective on Ripley’s Aquarium

Photo retrieved from Ripley’s Aquarium Toronto

“Would you be interested in a $2 souvenir program?” The smiling attendant at Ripley’s aquarium asks my grandparents and I.

“No thanks,” replies my grandfather.

“Alright then your total will be $70.51.”

$39.96 for two seniors and $29.98 for an adult.

Thank goodness my grandparents are paying for this two hours excursion.

Dark blue walls, high ceilings, trees strung with dolphin ornaments and a large pond filled with endless fish greet me as the second attendant takes our tickets.

“Welcome to Ripley’s Aquarium!” He smiles.

On Sunday afternoon at 2pm the place is packed with screaming children.

The 5-year-old boy in front of me bounces from tank to tank.

“FISHIES!” He screams as he pounds on the glass.

I overhear a mother talking to her three children who look between 7 and 12.

One whines.

“Lets just go to the fish playground now and play mom.”

“Fine, we can go to the kid’s zone but then we have to make our way back to take a look at some of the fish.”

“Hooray! Playground!” They shout.

Aquariums are frequently criticized for being cruel to marine life and the eco-system. Aquariums can disrupt the natural habitat of marine life, damage the eco system, and can be more concerned about profiting and entertaining then the well being of their animals. One of the main re-butler rebuttals of the Aquarium is that it is an education institution meant to foster relationships with our youth and the natural world.

“At Ripley’s Aquarium of Canada, our mission is to provide a world class experience that will foster education, conservation, and research, while providing fun and entertainment for locals and tourists of all ages.”

From what I observe, the aquarium is not doing much in terms of educating its visitors. The tanks with the largest, most grotesque and most beautiful sea creatures are hard too get a glimpse of over the crowds. The educational plaques scattered throughout the aquarium are in clear sight. No one is reading them.

Informational Plaques

I decide to do my due diligence and take the time to read some of the plaques instead of joining the sea of children gawking and smacking the glass encapturing the sea creatures. One plaque talks about the American Eel who travels between 1200–2000 Kilometres in its lifetime.

Staring at the creatures in the tank in front of me I realize it barely has room to stretch out its entire body.

The American Eel

How Aquariums Do More Harm than Help

One argument against aquariums is that removing marine life from the oceans disrupts the oceans natural eco-system.

“Predator loss is one of the top five threats to the oceans, according to Save our Seas. More than 90% of the top predators have already disappeared from our waters. ”

As I stand on the moving track bringing me through the ocean tunnel at Ripley’s I’m amazed by the number of large sharks swimming both beside and above me. I wonder what damage the removal of these sharks from their natural habitat is having on their original habitat, the ocean.

Another area where aquariums are found at fault is there touch tanks allowing customers to have an interactive experience with the animals, however “touch tanks-animals exposed to foreign bacteria.” Constantly being exposed to human interactions can also agitate and frustrate the animals.

At Ripley’s the touch tank is a popular attraction. Parents encourage their squeamish children to stick their hands in and poke the sea crabs. When they do gain the courage to do so they scream.

Although one of Ripley’s goals is to foster conservation and education they are instead teaching young children that animals are present for their enjoyment and are exploited for their entertainment.

One of the last exhibits of the aquarium is an interactive game station. Children stand in front of a green screen that allows them to hit a jellyfish making them spin simulating what Spinning Jellies look like in the ocean. Another station holds fish racing; children fire water guns at fish to propel them to the finish line. As I pass the frantic children I wonder what hitting and firing at marine life is teaching them about respect towards the oceans inhabitants.

Children playing “Spin the Jelly”

Student Perspective

To learn more about aquariums I decided to talk to some of my peers studying at Dalhousie, one of Canada’s coastal universities.

Fourth year Marine Biology Student Alex Dilonardo had an interesting perspective on aquariums. She finds there is a mix of “ good and bad things for aquariums.

I think that especially for land locked provinces/states aquariums are extremely important to build knowledge about the oceans and any water habitat. I know that I first wanted to become a marine biologist The Aquariums that I like the most are the rehabilitation centers. However, these are only restricted to coastal areas. I think that the purpose and goal of aquariums are to raise awareness has good intentions but end up turning into a place of entertainment.”

Fourth year Biology/Sustainability student Jake Abbott also has an interesting view on the merits of aquarium. He starts by explain that “any animal that we think has evolved to a point where it has emotion and personality should not be held in containment.”

He explains how some Aquariums are more ethical than others.

“I think the Vancouver Aquarium has done a much better job than other aquariums. They have numerous research programs; shoreline remediation projects that help conserve marine biodiversity, and have successfully rescued and rehabilitated orcas in their facilities. They are also a proponent of Marine Protected Areas, which I believe is one of the key solutions to the drop in marine biodiversity and fish stocks.”

Ripley’s Aquarium has also offered some initiatives to help promote sustainability. Ripley’s Blue Team is made up of select staff that meets regularly to promote environmental initiatives while motivating other employees.” Ripley’s also partners with the Shark Research Institute and the Kawartha Turtle Trauma Centre who both focus on conservation.

However overall Abbott still believes that “most aquariums are ridiculous.”

Despite the argument that aquariums benefit conservation by stimulating interest in marine eco systems Abbott still believes that “animals are meant to be viewed in the wild, especially cetaceans, which have been proven to exhibit analogs to human culture, and have a larger capacity for emotions than we do. On top of all of that aquariums are extremely inefficient and wasteful to run, especially when they are located inland. I think it fits into a broader issue that people want nature to come to them, and we are losing our connection to the world as a whole.”

After talking to these students it’s clear that there are mixed views and pros and cons to aquariums.

Making Money

When browsing the Ripley’s site it was easy to find other ways than the standard admission fees to help empty your pocket.

-Galleries

-Dine and Shop

-Friday Night Jazz

-Yoga

-Photography Classes

As I walk through the last exhibit I find my morals conflicted. You exit (as always) through the gift shop. Glittery fish stuffies, glass dolphins, shark tooth necklaces and souvenir t-shirts all do there best to tempt me. Somehow I resist. Just when I think I’m safe I’m asked if I would like to pose in front of a giant blue screen that simulates a shark attack for souvenir pictures. Again I somehow resist. Despite arguments against aquariums, the high cost of admission for students and my knowledge that Ripley’s real goal is to make money not save the eco-system, I’m ashamed to admit that I had a lot of fun.