And there’s been no shortage of feet through the door. In the last five years visitor numbers have jumped 25%, growing to 500 000 a year. To improve the offering, the Aquarium has spent north of R70-million in the past four years, building a new 1.6-million litre tank — the I&J Oceans Exhibit — as well as refurbishing existing exhibits.
But for Farquhar it’s all a means to an end: the aquarium’s profitability enables investment in education, conservation, and research. That investment runs to about R5-million a year, funding full-time teachers, on-site classrooms, and specially modified outreach vehicles.
“It’s a big operation: we reach 80 000 school kids a year,” Farquhar says. “And it’s all funded through ticket sales.” But he wants to do more. In 2018 the Two Oceans Aquarium Education Foundation was established as a registered non-profit and public-benefit organisation.
“Because the Foundation is non-profit, we can tap into corporate social investment money, which will allow us to do more education work,” he says. It will also, Farquhar hopes, free up funds for enhancing the aquarium’s conservation and research efforts.
A CAPTIVE AUDIENCE
Despite those admirable goals, aquariums are not immune to the global discussion around the ethics of keeping animals in captivity. These are murky waters. Are sharks acceptable in captivity, but dolphins not? What about orcas? Fish are fine, but mammals not? Where is the ethical line drawn in this sand?
“It’s about education and conservation,” Farquhar insists. “If any of the animals are not serving the purpose of the aquarium, we have to ask why we’re keeping them. Our driving goal is to change people’s behaviour and to inspire them into action for the future wellbeing of the oceans. But to do that you need to attract people. You need to put on a good show. It’s an interesting balance.”
When it comes to using the “show” to influence public behaviour, the aquarium’s focus is on two main issues: plastics pollution and overfishing.
The aquarium was a founding partner of the South African Sustainable Seafood Initiative (Sassi), and uses aquarium visits to remind people that not all fish come from sustainable sources. “Find out what you are eating,” he urges. “There’s no point in preaching bad news if you can’t give people simple solutions to do something about it.”
Solving the problem of plastic polluting the oceans isn’t as simple. While it’s easy to get angry about plastic on the beach, it’s the plastics you can’t see that are the real problem. Micro-plastics — particles smaller than 5mm — are the silent scourge of the world’s oceans.
“There is not a corner of the ocean that doesn’t have micro-plastics in it,” Farquhar says. “It’s getting into the food chain from the bottom up.”
While there’s little to be done about the micro-plastics already in the oceans, the aquarium’s focus is to cut the waste entering the oceans today. Those efforts run from beach clean-ups and educating learners about plastic and litter to working with retailers and restaurant chains to reduce their reliance on single-use plastics.
“The screws are being turned by public opinion,” Farquhar says. “We’re just trying to help reduce the load that’s coming down the line. Let’s start putting a lid on it now, instead of just carrying on the way we are.”
Step one? Lose the helium balloons.