Aquaria: captivity for visual gratification, or important avenues for education?


Aquarium, Dubai Burj Mall


I recently transited through Dubai with a spare day to explore and went to the Burj mall, where I was very surprised to see a Sand Tiger shark on my search for coffee! I had found my way to Dubai Aquarium where, from the comfort of a crowded mall, it is possible to watch 85 different species, including over 400 characteristic fauna such as sharks and rays going about their daily business. I was  excited by the opportunity to see these weird and wonderful creatures close up. I snapped away with my camera, making the most of the ease with which it was possible to capture these critters close up. The challenges of underwater photography (bubbles scaring away the subject, bulky scuba gear, etc.) were replaced by those of tourist attractions (crowds and the inability to move without ruining somebody’s photo, or take a photo without somebody moving into it). As I picked my way through the aqua tunnel, I wondered to myself about the merit of aquaria.


Sarah and Celeste enjoying the Fijian Reef at the Horniman Museum, London (photo credit: Ella Milward Hamylton)

Somewhat predictably and controversially, the American Zoo and Aquarium Association claim that such attractions educate their visitors, promoting attitude change and interest in marine conservation. A three-year nationwide study of North American Zoo and aquariums surveyed more than 5500 participants and found that 54% of respondents commented on an elevated awareness of their role in conservation as a result of their visit, although the methodological validity of this study was subsequently undermined. In Dubai, I was visually gratified but unimpressed by the almost complete absence of information available. No educational captions helped me to understand what I was looking at and, despite over a decade of working in marine science, I am still unable to identify half of the impressive specimens swimming around the tank. That is not to say that aquaria do not have educational value. I have also recently visited London’s Horniman museum, which houses an aquarium designed for the specific purpose of educating children, with low level viewing windows and displays crafted to inspire a deeper understanding of the marine environment in relation to broader topics such as evolution and conservation. As I held my 9-month old niece up to the display of the Fijian Reef, I was really pleased and excited at the opportunity she would have to learn about tropical marine environments from suburban south London.

Watching those Sand Tiger Sharks in Dubai mall, I was reminded of Blackfish, a recent documentary about the consequences of keeping Orca whales in captivity at SeaWorld, including aggression toward other captive whales and the deaths of three trainers. In most cases, we know very little about the relationships of these species to their natural habitat and therefore cannot fully understand the consequences of transitioning them to aquaria. For example, we do not know the geographical range of Tiger Sharks and the extent to which this is changed in a tank environment. Ahead of the Dubai mall grand opening, unintended consequences arose from the concentration of large numbers of characteristic marine fauna in small spaces when the Tiger sharks killed 40 of the smaller reef sharks. I am undecided where I stand on the issue, but it stikes me that targeted research is needed to answer questions about tank sizes and appropriate carrying capacities for the species to be contained. Moreover, to be worthwhile from an educational standpoint, informative displays linked to broader natural science themes add to the value of aquaria by offering a glimpse of unfamilar marine species to people in ways that educate. In the future, I’ll be sussing out these aspects of aquaria before buying my ticket.

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