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Fish gotta swim – Weymouth Sea Life Adventure Park

The Sea Life Adventure Park is one of Weymouth’s best-known and most popular attractions, but it is also home to a marine biology centre where important pioneering work is being done in conservation and captive breeding. John Newth has been finding out more.

Enthralled visitors in Sea Life’s spectacular Ocean Tunnel

Like zoos, aquaria today understand that there is no justification for their existence unless they contribute to the survival and welfare of the species they display; as the largest aquarium group in the world, Sea Life takes this obligation seriously.
That is why the collection of modest-looking huts and sheds, at the far end of the Sea Life site on the edge of Lodmoor, houses the headquarters of the scientific work of the forty Sea Life centres across the globe, as well as their quarantine centre and transport hub. It is also why there is a sophisticated captive breeding programme, and among the many wonders in the tanks in that group of wooden buildings are baby seahorses, perfectly formed but as big as your little fingernail, minuscule newly-born jellyfish, nautilus eggs resembling nondescript pebbles, and monkey-faced blenny eggs from each of which two little black dots that will become the fish’s eyes peer out. The breeding programme provides exhibits to Sea Life and other aquaria and minimises the number of fish that have to be taken out of their natural habitat.

A magnificent specimen of a black tip reef shark at the centre

When Sea Life came to Weymouth thirty years ago, it relied on local fishermen to supply it with local sea creatures and took almost whatever was on offer. Today, acquisitions are much more thoughtfully planned, according to what the centres decide they need for research, breeding or display. Where possible, new specimens are obtained from a captive breeding programme or from farming, but for the occasions when neither of those two options is possible, a Senior Curator at Weymouth, Chris Brown, travels the world vetting suppliers of wild fish. The best of them will be able to tell him exactly where, when, how and by whom each of their fish was caught.
When he is at home, the breeding programme takes up much of Chris’s time, and he possesses such useful information as the fact that if you flip a ray or shark onto its back, it is temporarily paralysed for long enough for you to give it an ultrascan to see if it is pregnant, for example. Such knowledge is child’s play to Sea Life’s marine biologists, but each centre has its own research and breeding programme and an advantage of belonging to such a large group is that the more esoteric results of their research are shared, to the benefit of everyone.

The weedy sea dragon, a seahorse relative, is one of the strangest of Sea Life's creatures

The Sea Life scientists at Weymouth take on other work that is only indirectly related to the public displays. For example, in South-East Asia in particular, it is not uncommon to catch fish by putting cyanide in the water near them. Many are killed, but some are just temporarily incapacitated and easily netted. It is cruel and wasteful, but until now there has been no reliable way of testing whether a fish had been taken by this method. In association with a university in Portugal, Sea Life are working on the development of such a test and hope that it may lead to a situation like that in the USA, where it is the importer of any fish suspected to have been caught with cyanide who is prosecuted.

Education is one of the centre’s fundamental purposes and it is a popular destination for school trips

However, the official title of the research department is Display Development, a reminder that Sea Life exists to entertain and educate the public by letting them see what emerges from those wooden sheds. Thirty years’ experience, allied to a constant programme of innovation, has led to displays that give the visitor as good an experience as possible while continuing to ensure that the exhibits receive the best possible care. There are nine different buildings, plus four enclosures for the centre’s seals, otters, penguins and caymans. Each building is themed – ‘Bay of Rays’, ‘Shark Reef’ and so on – but the most child-friendly of this very child-friendly attraction is ‘Claws Rockpool Adventure’, where youngsters can go rockpooling, look through a bathyscope, hold a crab and touch a starfish. It is reassuring to know that the crabs are put into this feature on a strict rota basis so that no one specimen gets fed up with being constantly fished out of the pool where he has been happily sitting!

The guitar shark demonstrates the close relationship between the sharks and the rays

Probably the most spectacular feature is the glass-sided ‘Ocean Tunnel’, which runs along the bottom of a huge tank so that there are fish not only on each side but above as well. Here, as elsewhere, there are bubble windows which protrude into the tank so that children can climb into them and feel as though they are really in among the marine life.
‘Turtle Sanctuary’ is home to five green turtles with oddly-shaped shells. That is because they were all damaged when hit by the propellers of power-boats. Although injured off the Florida coast, the turtles fetched up at Weymouth, where it was found that the shells had repaired themselves, but little bubbles of air had got into the tissue underneath and were preventing the animals diving. That is why the Weymouth turtles have weights attached to their shells: to restore the degree of buoyancy to which they were accustomed. Even without such problems, almost all turtles are endangered and Sea Life has founded a sanctuary and research establishment on Zante, off the west coast of Greece.
The animals are in the care of six aquarists, the fishy equivalent of zookeepers, who are impressively dedicated to their charges. One of them, Lauren Timson, explained that any of the tanks that need special equipment like heaters or coolers are alarmed and connected to pagers, so if there is a failure in the middle of the night, the duty aquarist has to go in and fix the problem.

Humboldt penguins feeding time

Lauren and her colleagues are key to the centre’s educational role, both by giving talks at fixed times during the day and by fielding every sort of question from the public – including from the lady who, despite the evidence of her eyes, remained convinced that the seahorse was a mythical creature like a dragon or a unicorn.
Perhaps surprisingly to the layman, Lauren insists that many of the fish have distinct personalities, like Bruiser the nurse shark, who lives up to his name by shouldering everyone else out of the way when there is food in the offing, or Gordon the gourami, who tenderly kisses the inside of his tank if you do the same on the other side of the glass. Then there is Squidge the octopus, who is so curious and resourceful that he is given a different toy to play with every day, his favourite being Mr Potato Head.
Sea Life are part of Merlin Entertainments, whose portfolio includes Legoland, Alton Towers and Madame Tussauds, not to mention the Sea Life Tower, Weymouth’s recent 170-foot acquisition at the other end of the beach. As a public company, Merlin has to be primarily concerned with its bottom line, so it is heartening that it sees the commercial as well as the ethical value of investing in such an ambitious programme of research, breeding and conservation. Both the natural world and the visitors to their
centres benefit. ◗

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