swim with the sharks…

… says the blackboard outside the National Aquarium of New Zealand, over in Napier, Hawkes Bay. It also offers tuatara, kiwi, a cafe… Good for an hour or so of investigation, I thought – I was on my way back to Hamilton from a Schol Bio day in Hastings, & wasn’t in any particular hurry. I remembered the Aquarium from when it was just the Napier Aquarium, way back when I was rather younger, & was interested to see how it had changed.

Well, it’s changed. A lot. (Although the saltwater crocodile that arrived in 1990 is still there.) I was greeted at the entry desk by Scotty, who’s an aquarium specialist, & we got talking. When he found I was an ex-HB girl, & a uni lecturer, he offered to show me behind the scenes after I’d done the tour. I certainly wasn’t going to say ‘no’ to an offer like that!.

When I first went to the aquarium, many years back, it was centred on a large tank containing sharks & a range of other fish. That’s still there, but now as well as viewing from around the outside of the tank you can also walk through & under it, in a plexiglass tunnel. Gives a whole new perspective on fish. From there you go to a lovely gallery of large tanks that are set up to illustrate aquatic ecosystems from various parts of the world: Lake Malawi, a south-east Asian estuary, the Amazon, & closer to home our own shoreline & streams. They breed seahorses too, with some very pregnant males on display. (When I was much younger, you could still find seahorses in the rock pools of the Mahia peninsula; I loved them then, too.) And there’s the crocodile, basking in a large arena of its own 🙂

There are kiwi & tuatara too, both of which used to be in another building further along Marine Parade. And – there’s a room devoted to the work & findings of New Zealand’s very own ‘Dinosaur Lady’, Joan Wiffen, with casts of all her major finds & a replica of the workroom from her home at Haumoana. That was rather special, as I met Joan myself when I was about 15, and she encouraged my own schoolgirl interest in palaeontology.

Scotty was there in the foyer when I got back, & took me through some of the special things out in the back rooms. One future exhibit is a lovely mount of one of the big moa species, recently arrived from its old home in the Museum, & nicely presented in a new protective glass case. (It had apparently had a bit of a hard time in the Museum, as there was nothing more than a chest-high barrier to protect it from interested hands.) We talked about the demise of NZ’s moa, which was surprisingly quick – perhaps within as little as 150 years of human settlement. The giant birds’ complete innocence regarding humans would have had a lot to do with this, but the fact that they were most likely K-selected, with the relatively slow reproductive rate & long generation time that this entails, would also have been significant.

And I got a sneak preview of his pride & joy – a tank of living corals & their accompanying reef fish. (The existing reef tank has models & dead corals.) These were truly spectacular – soft & hard corals; big, pulsating anemones, cleaner shrimp, several different clown fish…. Apparently the exhibit was gifted to the Aquarium by its Invercargill owners, & will be officially opened next month, so I felt really lucky to have an advance viewing. Thanks, Scotty, it was truly very much appreciated 🙂 And I’ll be back again next year.

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