Very Small Aquarium is All Hands On
Among the attractions are slick, beady-eyed eels, delicate sea horses with trilling fins and dusky stingrays that languidly skim their tank's contours. Five of the aquarium's 10 tanks are uncovered, their contents readily accessible to the fingers of any curious visitors.
Aquarium owner Murray Goss understands this curiosity well.
His office is a shrine to the ocean; the walls plastered with posters of marine life. Fishing reels in various states of repair litter his desk. DVDs entitled Whales: An Unforgettable Journey and Great White, Deep Trouble line the bookcase.
He had not worked with marine life before building the aquarium, but the business provided him with the perfect excuse to begin exploring the ocean's mysteries.
Murray and his wife Jenny arrived in the area eight years ago. They had been running a small farm in Manawatu before Murray decided he was ready for a change of direction - "something to do with the sea", to be specific.
"I'd done everything with the land, I'd grown trees and animals."
Marine life was another step.
His original plan was to move south to breed sea horses for export to Asia, and he and Jenny began searching the area from Collingwood to Blenheim for a potential business site.
They stumbled upon the Mapua location shortly before deciding the sea horse plan was not feasible due to the fickle Asian market.
Unwilling to relinquish his dream of working with fish, Murray decided the site, with its proximity to cafes and tourists, would be well-suited to an aquarium.
Its doors opened in 2001 after a year of planning and research.
"I was only used to land animals, not sea animals, but the principles are the same. When you're dealing with animals, it's all common sense."
He pored over publications and visited aquariums across the world, gathering expertise about filter systems and the relationships between different marine species - including where they fitted into the food chain.
"We had to find out what fish we could put with others because if we put the wrong fish together they might eat each other."
Because of his initial fastidiousness, he has had no reason to regret any aspect of the aquarium's systems or design.
"I got the best information available. For the area we've got, for the space we've got, it's perfect. That's the good thing about taking your time and doing things properly in the first place."
He would not specify how much it cost to set the aquarium up or what its annual intake was, besides saying it was more of a lifestyle business than a get-rich-quick scheme.
"We weren't coming here to turn this into a money-spinner," he says.
"It's not the sort of business opportunity you're going to make piles of money from. You're here for the enjoyment."
Part of the lifestyle Murray embraces is the chance to go fishing every couple of months for the legitimate business reason of replenishing the aquarium and scouring the seas for new specimens.
His passion for knowledge; his pursuit of a worldly education, is evident as he talks about these trips.
"With the ocean, it's never-ending - you can't know everything. When I go out to catch fish for the aquarium, I never know what I'm going to get. It's quite exciting, going fishing. I might pull something out of our net or off our line that's rare."
His primary fishing ground is the Marlborough Sounds' Devil Island, which he says is still a bountiful area as the currents and winds deter most fishers.
Murray sees the unruly conditions as another learning experience, another challenge to overcome.
And it pays off. He says they have pulled up goat fish, frost fish, elephant fish, all of which are not overly uncommon, "but they're pretty hard for people like me to catch".
These trips to the Sounds are also used to gather food for the aquarium fish - shrimp for the sea horses, crabs for the octopus, gurnard for most of the other carnivorous species. He often takes a diver with him to find starfish, crabs and sea anemones for the touch pools, which are the aquarium's greatest attraction.
The business's educational provider, Richard de Hamel, says the fact that the aquarium is so "cute and small" is precisely why it can give visitors such ready access to its inhabitants.
"If we had 4000 people coming through a day, the fish wouldn't survive. This aquarium is probably the envy of just about every aquarium in the world. It's pretty unique."
Although Richard is based at the aquarium, he is employed by the University of Otago and the Ministry of Education under a programme called Learning Outside the Classroom. His goal is to spark a passion for marine biology in the local youth - a fitting role for someone with such vast knowledge and infectious enthusiasm.
"An aquarium is a bit like a garden," he explains when asked how often the fish have to be replaced. "You have your annuals and perennials, but if you look round your garden from one week to the next, you won't necessarily see the same things."
The aquarium currently houses about 150 fish, which is about 80 percent of its capacity. On average, one fish a month will die, although in the winter the mortality rate decreases as the water temperature falls. Basically, if the fish are in a tank by April, they'll probably still be there in September, Richard says.
So why not permanently reduce the temperature of the water?
"We could do that," Richard muses, "but it would cost $25,000, and that's a lot of entries."
The only creatures which are regularly released and replaced are the sharks, which can begin to bruise their noses against the tank walls. Some of the aquarium's inhabitants, like the vast stingray who Richard has dubbed Mothership, have been with the aquarium almost since it first opened its doors.
He says any creatures that are not adapting well to aquarium life are returned to the ocean.
"We put back maybe four or five for every one that dies. Probably some of them die within 10 minutes of us putting them back, but if I was a fish I would rather die in the ocean."
In principle, he does not like the thought of keeping animal or marine life captive, but he points to the educational value of the process.
"I probably wouldn't like being a crab in an aquarium, because you'd get hassled mercilessly." However, he said, being a crab ambassador to the human world would be a worthy cause if it increased people's understanding.
The aquarium ostensibly contains plenty of potential for disaster - the uncovered tanks, the juvenile sharks, the presence of 45,000 litres of water.
However, Murray and Richard report they have never encountered any problems more serious than the occasional touch-pool animal being dropped into another tank.
Even this is a rare occurrence, as the vast majority of people treat the facility with respect.
Children are surprisingly gentle, stroking the slimy sea slugs and thorny starfish with reverential wonder, as though they can barely believe such a treat is allowed.
Those plucky enough can even offer gentle high-fives to the stingrays gliding along the edges of their tank.
The aquarium's owner and its educator both describe the visitors' reactions to these marine encounters as the highlight of their working day.
"You only have to look at the kids coming through here," Richard says. "They're touching crabs and they're stroking fish. The whole aquarium is their touch pool."
And don't forget to "Wear Blue and Tell Two"
Another great way to celebrate World Oceans Day is to wear blue in honor of the ocean and tell people two things they likely don't know about the ocean and two ways they can take action. For more Information check out this website:
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