The Localist

Ripley’s Aquarium of Canada: Where are all the bearded fish?

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For a few years, we have been having an inner conflict regarding animals in captivity in places such as zoos and aquariums. On the one hand, we will be the first to admit the fun times to be had at African Lion Safari in Hamilton, Ontario, where you can watch baboons crawl over your car and yank your antenna off, or at Featherdale Wildlife Park in Sydney, Australia, where visitors can pet wallabies and koalas. On the other, we have been enlightened by news reports and documentaries of animal abuse and neglect, like Blackfish, The Cove and Apologies to Elephants, to name a few.

A case is made by some that animals are treated “humanely” in these types of environments.  They can live long happy lives because they are safe from predators, receive medical care and have a regular supply of food.  Further claims are made that these settings, although “artificial”, offer opportunities for visitors to interact with and appreciate the beauty of the animals, fostering a sense of interconnectedness and a desire for conservation.  This leads us to wonder whether the animals would still choose living free in the wild with the risk of natural predators over living in a roomy-ish, fenced-in enclosure while gawking tourists watch them pee in their mouths and make love. Perhaps the gorilla chucking feces at tourists is hinting an answer to this question.

What if they don’t like their roommates? How would you like it if you were trapped in a room for the rest of your life with the school bully who used to administer wedgies, or the buffoon at work who soils the air with farts and misogynist jokes all day.  Is it then fair to say that normalizing “captivity” zoos and aquariums gives the impression that forced confinement is a necessary evil, while hiding the fact that animals experience serious physical and mental stress as a result of prolonged absence from their natural habitat? Is anyone even surprised anymore to learn of yet another animal turning against its handler or trainer? Then again, it’s widely accepted in the scientific community that tiny creatures like the tapeworm or clown fish (a.k.a. “Nemo”) do not possess the highly developed sensory organs necessary to perceive their surroundings.  And since many natural habitats have already been destroyed or damaged to a large extent by humans activities over the years, are animals really better off being “free”?

Given our internal conflict about animals in captivity, it was with mixed emotions that we visited Toronto’s newest attraction this weekend – Ripley’s Aquarium of Canada.  Yes, the same Ripley company that gave us Ripley’s Believe It Or Not museums of weirdoes and other oddities littering tourist areas around the world. Are we going to be subjected to a bearded jellyfish, or a tale of a wise-ass hammerhead shark striving for the world record for how many mackerel it can fit in its mouth? There’s only one way to find out, I suppose. Here is what we discovered on our adventure.

From the get-go, the white angular building that is home to the Ripley’s Aquarium of Canada is a sight to behold.  Almost immediately upon entering we came across an imposing two-story cylindrical shaped tank holding a whirling array of fish found in the Great Lakes. It seemed more like a piece of contemporary art than a simple aquarium tank housing fish, as hundreds or thousands of shiny silver fish lit up the entryway to the exhibits.

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The first exhibit room of the aquarium featured North American seafood, er correction, sea creatures. We were surprised to learn that the Great Lakes are home to this silly looking fish with a long skinny snout, called a Paddlefish, which uses its electric field emitting snout to find plankton. Then we were lucky enough to witness a battle for aquatic yard supremacy in a lobster tank, where a blue crab chased a red lobster off a boulder to become king of the castle. Continuing on, it seemed all the types of sea creatures were represented, from starfish to octopi to anemones to coral and even a sea of kelp.

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The first few exhibits were informative and visually interesting, but the highlight of the Ripley’s Aquarium of Canada was the middle section. We were met by a large tropical fish tank in a wall where a scuba diver floated while clutching a hand full of what looked like chum with one hand, attracting a swarm of tropical fish and waving at the awestruck children with his other hand. Then… the centrepiece of the centrepiece… a slow moving sidewalk through a glass tunnel tank where an abundance of different types and sizes of fish swam over our heads, the highlights being the fish with a saw for a nose (sawfish), the shark with a hammer for a head (hammerhead), and the shark that is as flat-as-a-pancake (A ray? Really? Should be called a pancake shark if the marine biologist who invented fish names was consistent).

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Much like the cylindrical tank of silver fish near the entrance, the Planet Jellyfish exhibit also featured a beautiful piece of art in the form of large tanks recessed into the wall where jellyfish glowed through a display of changing colours in front of a bright blue backdrop, all accompanied by space-y music. It was the most surreal experience, evoking the feeling of having stepped into an alien environment, much like the ocean itself.

Following the jellyfish exhibit, where we learned of the dangers these cuddly-looking creatures pose, was the information-heavy shark exhibit, where we learned how ‘not’ dangerous sharks are. A few tanks house smaller varieties of sharks, as most of the sharks call the larger tank area previously described home.There was a shark statue, where you can reach into its stomach to feel the inadvertent non-seafood diet that sharks accidentally eat, like watches (not attached to arms!) and boat parts, and a hammerhead vision simulator, where you can swivel a hammerhead from side to side to see how a hammerhead sees (duh!) through its goofy appendage eyes on the sides of its head.

Overall, we were pleasantly surprised by how beautiful and informative the entire experience was at the Ripley’s Aquarium of Canada. We are not sure if we gained any further insight into the ethics of aquariums.  We’ll probably have to wait for that documentary to be made to help settle the debate for us.  But just to be safe, we avoided the restaurants down Spadina Avenue in Chinatown where shark fin soup is still served (FYI, Toronto city council had voted to ban the sale, consumption and possession of shark fin, which was later overturned by an Ontario court. The shark fin ban was also opposed by Rob Fordremember him?), and we capped off the night by eating at one of our favorite vegetarian restaurants.

MEET THE LOCALS: KRISTINE BERNABE AND JEFF P.

Images. All photos by Kristine Bernabe and Jeff P.

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