07 July 2009

Diving in Two Oceans

Today one of my dreams came true. We dived in the predator tank in Cape Town Two Oceans aquarium. Ever since I saw the leaflet on my last visit I thought what a cool thing to be on the other side of the window. This is probably one of my favourite aquariums, it has very sophisticated exhibits, lots of information, and the main tanks are beautifully designed and lit. Somehow an aquarium doesn't have that depressingly lonely feel of a zoo, either, although the penguins never look very happy.

There are actually two tanks to dive in, the predator tank and the kelp forest. Both seem endless, like a window out to sea, the tantalisingly big fish just happening to appear in front of the aquarium window as we watch them, hypnotised by the movement and speckled light.

All morning I was beyond excited. I had no idea what to expect, just that there would be two dives, the predator dive and the kelp dive. Matt, our dive leader, took us to the tanks in the darkened exhibition space and explained the process, how to behave around the fish (keep your distance from the sharks, the rays won't sting, so you can let them touch you; watch the turtles, they may snap; if you get tangled in the kelp, don't yank it out) and what we would be doing (you can look for shark teeth in the sand - sharks can lose up to 40000 teeth in their life time -, we will feed the fish from a bag of pilchards, swim around at your own pace, don't get lost).

Next we went behind the scenes. To get into the tank we had to climb onto the roof of the building, where the aquarium is open to the elements. The tanks are covered with blue tarps to prevent evaporation. There was a big old rusty pump to simulate the swell in the kelp tank, rushing sea water into the container every now and then. A platform stretched across the water surface down some rickety steps to get into the water. It all looked pretty ramshackle from here, with old pipes and flaking white washed walls, compared to the controlled environment below. There was a real feeling of smoke and mirrors, feet furiously paddling below to maintain the calm elegance of the exhibition.

We first went into the predator tank, as the water was slightly warmer at 18C. Getting into the water was easy, we just ducked under the tarps, slipped off the platform into the water and dropped past the shark circuit - they like to cruise closer to the surface. And then we were in the aquarium. It was actually only 5 meters deep, but as with all dives, once you lose sight of the surface, the rest of the world becomes a theoretical location to return to by necessity rather than choice. In the water the surface is irrelevant compared to the strange and amazing world around us. Here were large wrasses, yellow tails, sting-rays in increasing sizes, ragged-tooth sharks and turtles. And amazingly, here in front of us, was the window. People were staring, waving, pointing, at us - and the fish we had joined on the other side. It was eery to be here, not on the side of the air breathers, that despite of all the equipment I needed to sustain myself down here, I was now one of the aquatics.

We really just spent the time swimming around, watching the rays pass us - the large ray had a habit of slowly passing flat along the glass with it's underside to the viewers, a very elegant move executed with a simple swish of the wing. Occasionally a shark would grace us below, still above us so we could marvel at the row of very pointy teeth. An old turtle mostly sat in a dark corner, giving off a depressed and resigned air, while the smaller turtle hung around, liking to have its underside scratched by Matt.

Our second dive took us into the - colder at 14C - Kelp tank, housing large schools of sea fish, a small shark and lots of sea anemones, From the outside it is fascinating, brown fronds swaying back and forth in the water, schools of silvery fish moving past the window, beautiful. Once in the tank it was a bit more confusing. Despite being only 12x12 meters, the rocks and kelp make the space disorienting, as we swam around new spaces revealed themselves, new angles and views. We had a chance to feed frozen pilchard halves to the fish in this tank, unlike the predator tank it was actually safe to do so here without the danger of loosing a finger, these fish being less aggressive - and having smaller mouths. Nevertheless there was quite a bit of jostling and nudging when the food appeared. One large wrasse in particular , a real bruiser, all shiny and silver, just snapped half a pilchard out of my hand. It disappeared without a trace. The smaller fish were a little more dainty, taking bites off the snack held out to them.

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