Behind the scenes at uShaka Sea World
Durban’s uShaka Sea World is a world-class aquarium that’s home to thousands of different fish species, turtles, penguins, seals, jellyfish, lobsters and other fascinating marine life forms.
A two-hour stroll through the facility is a colourful, awe-inspiring, humbling and rewarding experience. But what goes on backstage at the largest aquarium in the southern hemisphere is even more impressive.
The pristine exhibits, a bounty of healthy fish and spotless grounds are the work of a team of 200 whose dedication, skill and hard work keeps the facility functioning optimally.
The role of the South African Association for Marine Biological Research (SAAMBR) – incorporating uShaka Sea World and the Oceanographic Research Institute – encompasses care of the animals, managing the technical aspects of the aquarium, operating an education centre and conducting marine research.
Working according to a philosophy of inspiring, connecting and empowering visitors, uShaka Sea World’s main focus is marine conservation – striving to create an environment that motivates people to protect their ocean heritage.
In the heart of the aquarium is an enormous room where pipes, sumps, filters and multi-coloured buttons control 400 to 500 cubic metres of water that is the lifeblood of the aquarium.
The water is drawn from below the sandy seabed via inlet pumps, from where it makes its way along some 27km of piping to reach its designated spot. Despite the large volumes of seawater being reticulated, 3% of the total volume is replaced daily.
uShaka Sea World’s main focus is marine conservation – striving to create an environment that motivates people to protect their ocean heritage.
A specialised plant room controls the life-support system for a multitude of small exhibits, each of which requires a protein skimmer, sand filter and specific temperature.
Fish are also fussy eaters, which means one of the most demanding daily tasks is keeping each animal fed with the right food in the right quantity.
Fish preparation entails chopping up a variety of fresh, top-quality fish, prawns and other titbits into different-sized morsels to feed a long list of species. And, unlike boarding school grub, the menu is varied and often includes peas and carrots!
Keeping the water in pristine condition is vital to the survival of all animals, one of the reasons why trained scuba divers, aka 'underwater cleaning technicians', scrub glass viewing panels with non-abrasive pads to remove algae build-up. Each diver anchors himself to the glass with a handy little suction cup while going about daily window-cleaning duty.
Some duties may be mundane, but others involve research, such as experimental sponge and anemone reef growth.
And until solar power is able to drive the powerhouse that keeps the aquarium ticking over, staff are always looking for ways of saving resources such as electricity and leading the conservation effort by example. The latest contribution is a variable speed drive, an innovation that saves on the aquarium’s energy and water use.
Saving energy and water is also the focus of the eco-house, where useful experiments demonstrate how to save water and electricity in the household by using special showerheads and globes.
Apart from practical conservation tips, a wealth of general knowledge is shared with attentive visitors.
Who knew that you can tell the age of a fish is by counting the rings in its ear bones, or how sea goldies change their sex in response to the environment? Or that the aquarium’s single 'seventy-four' represents a species that is now commercially extinct due to overfishing?
Along with rare fish, there are some pretty big fish to be seen too, including an enormous, 30-year-old brindle bass rescued six years ago from the St Lucia estuary, which is now bigger than me.
There are many small fish too, like dominos, tiny black fish with white dots that dart about frenetically – in contrast to the slow wafting of devil firefish, with their poisonous spiny fins arrayed.
Another busybody is the robust jawfish, constantly decorating the outside of its rocky crevice with pebbles and shells, while jellyfish in an adjacent exhibit seem content to pulsate in an eerie blue light, like miniature alien spacecraft.
And, stepping out into the bright sunlight, it truly feels as if you’ve been visiting another planet, one where life goes on under the sea, as long as we allow it to.