I have been cursed with two things in my life. Parents who let me watch Jaws when I was far too young, and friends who embrace this fact. I have a serious, irrational fear of sharks. Not just the “stay away from bitey sharp-toothed beasts” common sense sort of fear, but the sort of terror that haunts my dreams and leaves me hiding under the couch during shark week.
And my dear, cruel friends happen to be biologists, so they give me all the facts and figures to explain that sharks aren’t at this very moment plotting ways to kill me. I don’t taste like fish. Most are just harmless wee creatures who don’t have an aggressive bit of cartilage in their body. I am far, far away from an ocean. Still, I don’t buy it. They are monsters, and they’re going to kill me in one big bloody massacre, all to the tune of that menacing Jaws soundtrack. Da dum, da dum…
A lovely coincidence… my super geeky biologist friends were all squealy excited that the new Ripley’s Aquarium in downtown Toronto has finally opened, and it just happened to be moments away from my birthday. They saw the perfect opportunity to disguise torment with kindness. “I know, we’ll go to the aquarium for your birthday! They have sting rays, and starfish, it’ll be so much fun!” They have over 16 000 critters, including a sea turtle and some desperately cute sea horses, and it’s the biggest indoor aquarium in Canada – I admit I was as tempted as I was terrified.
“Uh, they also have sharks…”
“Well, yes, but they keep them in the water, and likely feed them well. They probably won’t bite you.” They tell such sweet lies. All the same, it was bound to be better than the frighteningly accurate penis cake they made for my birthday last year. I hoped.
I also had other concerns about venturing off to the aquarium. Frankly, aquariums don’t always have the best of reputations. I take issue with training animals to do tricks for entertainment, and when orcas make a habit of murdering their trainers, it’s clearly an indication that something has gone terribly awry. Would this be entertainment, or would they hit that ever important conservation and education mark? Ripley’s is an accredited aquarium, so I was hopeful. Who better to tag along with than my biologist friends? They would be reading every last panel, spending an eternity at each habitat, and soaking up every bit of information.
Personally, I think Ripley’s did a reasonable job. No doubt, I was completely dazzled, immersed in a Nemo style rainbow of fish. I was very impressed that they started off by highlighting the Great Lakes and all the cool and wacky looking fish we have close to home. The interpretive signs revealed interesting facts and figures. I think my favourite part was the sense of immersion – instead of standing on the outside looking into an aquarium, they’ve mixed it up – you are the one encased in glass, and the aquarium surrounds you. Standing on the 96 metre moving sidewalk, you can focus entirely on the fins fluttering by overhead. I caught myself swaying along with the giant aquatic plants, singing the Little Mermaid theme song. And oh how the geeky biologists lingered. Forever.
However, I feel they missed the mark on championing conservation efforts. Once through the maze of galleries and exhibits, you are released to an open pool area, Ray Bay, where if you are lucky you may pet a beyond cute cownose ray. Some were segregated though, and guarded by a staffer. It wasn’t until I quizzed her did I learn that the cordoned off area was a nursery. I asked about breeding programs, where the critters go (some stay, some may be shipped off to other accredited zoos and aquariums) But, I had to do all the snooping and prying. And for me, that was the highlight of the day – new life, adorable critters, hope. They could have boasted about their research initiatives, sustainability plans, outreach programming, and internal policies and practices. Instead, the grand finale was the gift shop –cheesy shark hats, expensive t-shirts and children’s toys from very, very far away. Oops. Still, I was full of that gushy “Mother Nature is pretty freaking spectacular” feeling, and I think that is paramount.
As for the sharks – while they left me trembling, I won. I saw the evil gleam in their eyes, I swear I saw one drool as it swam by flashing his teeth at me, and I know they were plotting their escape with the sole motive of chomping me to bits. But I prevailed. I managed to stand still for a mere moment with my back to one while my cruel friends snapped a photo, giggling over of my look of sheer terror. And, I even got to pet one. A little brown bamboo shark, oozing wicked schemes and malevolence even at a mere 2 feet long. The little cutie let me pat him for almost a minute, though I suspect he was memorizing my features for a future attack. Secretly, I may have even developed a wee crush. Then again, I always fall for the bad boys…
The deets: First, a thank you to Ripley’s Aquarium who sponsored my shark aversion therapy. You can check out the hours, location, admission prices and all the other goods on their lovely piece of internet: http://www.ripleyaquariums.com/canada/. Check them out on Twitter, as they update wait times on their sometimes long line-ups. You could cram your visit into an hour, but aim to linger for about two. Pre-purchasing will save you a bit of time.