Inside Water World

Aquarist Helen Fitzgerald in the tunnel at the Blue Reef Aquarium
Aquarist Helen Fitzgerald in the tunnel at the Blue Reef Aquarium
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As sharks circle near the surface a seven foot eel with razor sharp teeth unfurls itself from the deep and heads in our direction.

It should be a nerve-shattering sight but rather than being a frantic swimmer in some far-flung place I’m safely on a platform at the side of a huge tank and in the company of an experienced aquarist.

13/12/2011 (RJ) COVER STORY BLUE REEF AQUARIUM''The News Features Writer Rachel Jones spent a day at the Blue Reef Aquarium in Southsea feeding the fish.''Pictured is: (left) The News Features Writer Rachel Jones with aquarist Fiona Snowdon during food prep.''Picture: Sarah Standing (114360-6561)

13/12/2011 (RJ) COVER STORY BLUE REEF AQUARIUM''The News Features Writer Rachel Jones spent a day at the Blue Reef Aquarium in Southsea feeding the fish.''Pictured is: (left) The News Features Writer Rachel Jones with aquarist Fiona Snowdon during food prep.''Picture: Sarah Standing (114360-6561)

In fact this experience at Southsea’s Blue Reef Aquarium takes on something of the surreal as staff member Fiona Snowdon hands Greenie, the green moray eel, some food. She then reveals that the rather sweet-looking but highly toxic pufferfish swimming up and down nearby is called Colin.

The blacktip reef sharks don’t have cuddly names but they aren’t fully grown and are pretty timid creatures, explains Fiona.

We’ve climbed a ladder to the top of the shark aquarium at the Southsea attraction and are throwing in sprats and squid that we’ve carefully prepared earlier.

I’ve joined Fiona in her duties as part of Blue Reef’s Fish Keeper For The Day experience. Visitors who book this very special package get a guided tour and the chance to accompany an aquarist (or fish-keeper) on the feeding rounds, looking after everything from tiny exotic fish to otters.

As Greenie comes for his lunch, Fiona says: ‘He’s reasonably good-natured but you have to be quite careful. He knows he’s the boss and he’s got a very sharp set of teeth.’

The excitement isn’t ending there. We go on to feed the red bellied piranha, reputedly one of the most ferocious fish on the planet. But Fiona is quick to defend them.

‘It’s the same with sharks, films and things have been really bad for the reputation of these animals. There is danger in the wild but it’s really if they’re absolutely starving.’

Still, a hungry shoal can strip the flesh of a large animal in minutes and these creatures can bite through steel fishing hooks so only a fool would think about putting their hand in the water right?

In my defence my fingers only darted towards the surface as an instant reaction. The piece of trout I’d thrown in had gone wide of the mark and Fiona had explained earlier that we feed them slowly because waste can’t be left to rot. Needless to say as I absent-mindedly reached to get it, she stopped me. And the fish were at the other side of the tank eating at a civilised speed – nothing like the feeding frenzy of films and adverts.

Anyone who has been to Blue Reef will tell you about the friendliness of the rays who rise up as if to greet their visitors.

They’re generally looking for food, but their intelligence surprises a lot of people and perhaps goes some way to helping their image which suffered after a southern stingray shot its defensive barb at nature presenter Steve Irwin’s chest and killed him.

Fiona points out the barbs on some slightly smaller stingrays at Blue Reef as we feed them and explains: ‘That was a freak accident. He died because of where it struck him. And it’s really unusual for them to release their barb because it’s extremely painful for them.’

We also visit the quarantine area where new animals are kept while their health is assessed. Fiona, who seems to love all her charges, coos over a baby zebra shark. This is a tiny version of a beautiful creature and spiritedly goes for its chopped-up squid.

Not surprisingly, 25-year-old Fiona, who has a marine biology degree, loves her job, but she says people are often surprised about what is involved. As well as cleaning and feeding there is the maintenance and building of tanks. The aquarium is kept clean and the fish healthy by a filter and sterilisation system. This keeps the water clean and the chemical balance right. Water is pumped in from the Solent and then the salt levels are adjusted for the mangrove (where salt and fresh water meet) tank and the temperatures adjusted for the tropical tanks.

One of the biggest attractions at Blue Reef is the tunnel where visitors can gaze at hundreds of gloriously coloured tropical fish darting in the aquarium around them. And in a nearby tank children love seeing the clownfish (the starring species in Disney film Finding Nemo).

Beautiful as they are, some of the tropical species are toxic. Many species of pufferfish are deadly when eaten, but despite the fact that only five per cent of the fish is edible they are a sort of extreme culinary delicacy. ‘I don’t agree with it. It’s just showy really,’ says Fiona.

‘Chefs have to train for about 10 years to be able to prepare it safely and an awful lot of animals are wasted in the process.’

Education and conservation is important at the aquarium. Blue Reef works with several conservation organisations and there are also breeding programmes of certain species.

We end our day looking at recently-born baby seahorses. Until you examine the container more closely, they look like wisps of thread. But from the moray eel to the tiny seahorse, all the species are important to Blue Reef and the environment.

FACTS

1. There are 400 species of shark in the world.

2. Some fish, including the wrasse and the clownfish, can change sex when they reach maturity.

3. All rays and sharks have never ending supplies of teeth and as soon as one is damaged, another one comes forward.

4. Pufferfish puff up as their last form of defence. It takes a huge amount of effort and they can only do this about eight or nine times during their lives.

5. Green moray eels are actually blue but with a layer of yellow slime.

6. The smallest species of shark in the world is a pygmy shark which would fit on an A4 piece of paper.

7. The giant ocean sunfish, usually found in temperate or tropical waters, can grow to the size of a minibus.

8. The first sharks patrolled our seas 400 million years ago.

BLUE REEF

The displays at Blue Reef are designed to allow visitors to get as near as possible to everything from seahorses to stingrays.

As well as sea life, there are also amphibians, reptiles and three highly entertaining otters.

For admission prices, group packages, opening times, events, becoming a member and information on education and conservation, visit bluereefaquarium.co.uk or call 023 9287 5222.