Monday, April 26, 2010

Life in a Fishbowl - Murray Newman

"Confessions of an Aquarium Director" - this is the autobiography of the first director of the Vancouver Aquarium. I picked it up a few years ago, and it has been sitting on my shelf, just waiting for the time to be right. Since I've been too moody and distracted to really enjoy fiction lately, I picked it up figuring that it wouldn't go mucking about with my emotions.

It is a fascinating book. The Vancouver Aquarium was opened back in 1955, and boy have times ever changed since then. First off, back then all the folks in charge were men. Women are volunteers, and the occasional scientist. Newman actually points this out several times, and is obviously quite happy about the fact that 40 years later the ratio of men to women is evening out.

I had never really thought much about aquariums and the animals in them before. Housing fish and marine mammals has a few things in common with keeping animals in cages at zoos, but there are some very unique challenges. For one thing, you need a really large tank full of water, with transparent sides. For another thing, the water has to be really really clean, at just the right temperature, and just the right degree of salinity. Initially the aquarium had built a really long intake pipe into Vancouver Harbour, but in the spring when low tide coincided with the middle of the day, the water coming in was too warm for some of the fish and they died. I really hadn't appreciated just how temperature sensitive some fish are! I mean, obviously tropical fish are going to need warm water, but any fish that are native to the coast of B.C. are going to need cooler water. And fish who live really deep down are going to need even colder water than that.

I didn't appreciate how little was known about whales and octopi and other large marine animals prior to the 1950s. The first killer whale ever captured live wound up getting stored in a dry dock while the aquarium tried to figure out what on earth to do with him. He had been caught by some local fishermen, harpooned through the fin, but was surprisingly docile. He survived long enough that they were able imagine keeping killer whales in the aquarium, but unfortunately the conditions he was kept in didn't let him survive long enough for them to build a proper habitat. But they were ready by the time the next killer whales showed up.

Back when the aquarium opened, the main way of acquiring specimens was to go out and capture them, or pay hunters and fishermen to capture them for you. Nowadays public opinion has turned against capturing wild creatures and displaying them in zoos. But prior to zoos and aquariums displaying such creatures, the only people who encountered them were hunters in the wild - and it is difficult to empathize with a creature whom you need to kill in order to survive. Orcas are incredibly dangerous, and eat the same fish that we like - fishermen used to have machine guns mounted to their boats in order to kill any they came across. Keeping animals as pets seems to be the best way of appreciating that they have a place in the world as well, and that we don't need to take that away from them. It is pretty incredible when you think about it.

Another fascinating story he tells is about the Exxon Valdez disaster, and the recovery of oiled seals. A few years prior some other folks had experimented with deliberately oiling seals (with vegetable oil) to discover how best it might be removed from their coats. This was a highly controversial experiment at the time, as it was potentially fatal for the seal, but this experience allowed them to save the few seals they were able to save following the disaster.

I really loved his stories about traveling all over the world, collecting rare fish, learning about habitats in order to build displays, and enjoying the beauty of the world. Newman's love of nature and desire to teach everyone about it - preferably by bringing bits of it to them rather than forcing everyone to trap through it and disturb the inhabitants - is just amazing. His stories of fundraising are quite hilarious - and the sheer amount of cash required to accomplish what he did is incredible.