A glimpse at what lies beneath

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It’s a cold day and you get caught up in a big barrelling wave. You break the surface gasping for air. Quickly you understand the power of the ocean. You’re in awe. A terror arises in you, but you are amazed, energised. Dried off and warm under a towel and your Dad’s arm, you see dolphins for the first time. For the next decade your interest is piqued, you read about dolphins, buy dolphin toys and spend many hours inspecting the water for the shiny glean of their skin. Along the way you learn about sea stars and coral and you are enamoured by the allure and mystery of what lies beneath. You have strong memories from there forth; of sights, sounds and textures. Early experiences of the beach stay with us for life.

For many children in the modern world, their first sighting of rare animals is at the aquarium. For many adults, their only sighting of our rare and endangered sea life is at the aquarium.

“We ultimately want people to come to the aquarium and see a sea animal that they have never seen before and they can then be educated about that particular animal. Ultimately the reasons why we have animals here is so that people can learn how to take care of them out in the wild,” said Brianna Lang. 

Brianna has always wanted to work with animals and after her studies at La Trobe University she embarked upon an internship at Sea Life Melbourne Aquarium. She has since worked at the aquarium for seven years and her enthusiasm is obvious. She cannot help but share fun facts and information with visitors as she wanders past. The hope is that more children will grow up to have an interest like her.

“That’s why we do what we do, that’s why we’re here for people to come and enjoy and be educated and learn about all of the animals we have here.”

“I’m always happy to answer questions if a kid is really excited about something. When the kids are excited about wanting to learn and they ask really good questions, that’s when you get a glimpse of what the future generations will be like so I always have time to stop and talk to those fascinated kids.”

A variety of colours flutter by, in an eclectic mix of sizes and shapes. There’s delicacy and sharp edges; intricate patterns and inquisitive eyes. Most animals seem busy, in a flurry of movement. Hurry, and around we go again. Of course, there is exception. A ginormous cousin of the dinosaurs, an ancient croc, lies sleeping and a large group of penguins stand, waddle, stand a bit longer. A fish that looks like a lizard, a seahorse resembling a mystical creature. It is art meets life here at the aquarium. It seems almost bewildering that so many different species co-exist within these walls, beside the Yarra river, within the city and below the train line.

“It’s so good for young children because there is always movement and colour. There is always something to see,” said Brianna.

People of all ages catch a glimpse of other worldly life here- and yet as exotic as it may appear, it is a part of our world and as Brianna and her team try to convey, there is cause and effect for all lifeforms, particularly these creatures who regulate our oceans and keep things in working order. They are a vital part of our ecosystem.

Brianna spends long hours with the wildlife and said that they most definitely have personalities.

“You’ll even get sharks definitely, sting rays yes, even the cuttlefish and the octopus- they all have personalities- even the croc, you might not think it as he does not move much but he definitely does have a personality and then you’ll get a few random fish like the globe fish in our coral atoll display - they’ll come up to you to say hi and spit water at you.”

“They are definitely inquisitive. They clue onto things as well, like the time of day as certain displays get feed at the same time each day for presentations.”  

“When we used to have bright blue shirts, you would walk past a tank and they would follow you because they would recognise the shirt,” said Brianna.    

There is a connection. Despite the many miles and differences between human kind and sea life, we share the same planet, and both have roles to play. One of ours is to protect these animals, as many are on the brink of extinction, and the threat to more sea life continues to grow.  

“If we didn’t have these animals here a lot of people wouldn’t know what is out in Port Phillip Bay. They wouldn’t know that we have Port Jackson sharks under piers and they wouldn’t know that you can go and see string rays off Rye and Blairgowrie, for example. People wouldn’t know what is out there if they’re not shown it here at the aquarium.”

It’s at the aquarium that we get context and discover what ramifications lie ahead for marine life if the world continues to burgeon.

“If people don’t know what they’re trying to look after then they’re not going to care about it. Initiatives such as reducing your plastic use or monitoring what chemicals you pour down the drain have no effect on people if people don’t know specifically what animals those practices are affecting. But if people come to the aquarium and see these animals it makes it more real and they hopefully start to think that they actually can take steps to help these animals.”

Philosopher Socrates once said, “The more I learn, the less I realise I know.” Many scientists will understand this notion because for everything we know of the ocean, there is an equal or greater amount that we do not know.

One thing’s for sure, the ocean is living with us, alongside us, underneath us and around us. Something so vast and so strong yet so delicate and not free from external harm. 

Article by Sinead Halliday

Five animals you won’t want to miss at Sea Life Melbourne Aquarium 

1) The Grey Nurse Shark. His name is Mitchell and he has been at Sealife Melbourne aquarium for 18 years. He is the only Grey Nurse Shark left in Victoria as they are now extinct in Victorian waters. This makes him very special to aquarium staff. In the 1960s the Grey Nurse Shark was hunted as it was believed that they were man eaters due to their scary looking teeth. But the truth is that because of the shape of their teeth they physically cannot eat anything bigger than about 30cm long. So humans all very safe. He is a bit of a puppy dog and loved by all staff.

2) The Octopus. Her name is August because August is the 8th month and octopus have eight legs! Octopus are very intelligent and can be trained to do some cool things. August can open a jar to get food out from inside. Staff also give them LEGO blocks to play with to keep their mind active. Octopus also have three hearts! One that pumps blood to the body and two hearts that pump blood to the two sets of gills.

3) The Weedy Sea Dragons. The Weedy Sea Dragon is the marine emblem for Victoria and is iconic in our waters. You can see them snorkelling or diving down at Flinders. Like Sea Horses, the Weedy Sea Dragon males carry the eggs while they develop. However, unlike Sea Horses, the male Weedy Sea Dragons holds them on the underside of hair tail instead of in a pouch. They have many appendages which helps them camouflage in with the sea grass beds and sea weed where they live. 

4) The Salt Water Crocodile. His name is Pinjarra and at 5m long and 800kg he’s hard to miss. He is estimated to be 50-60 years old. Crocodiles are ectothermic which means that they get their energy to move from the external environment such at the heat from his heat lamps. This means that they conserve as much energy as possible so you’ll often see him not moving at all. The energy that they get from their food goes entirely to growing. And at 5m he doesn’t have much growing to do. So therefore he only needs one chicken a week. He loves a shower. After every feed the staff get the hose out and give him a hose down so he gets a good massage from the hose.

5) The Penguins. There are two species at the aquarium; Gentoo and King Penguins. They all have names and their Keepers can tell them all apart thanks to their specific wing bands. The aquarium has successful breeding programs for both species and welcome in fluffy penguin chicks each year. The Gentoo Penguin is the fastest swimming penguin and can reach up to 35kph. On land however they are both a bit clumsy. They waddle around or slide on their belly to get from one place to another

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