Spin the Globe with Justin Butner

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Reef HQ

Written 25 August

The stats sounded impressive on paper. A 2.5 million liter aquarium containing a reef, sharks, fish: the whole deal. Then I paused and thought about it. A 2.5 million gallon tank sounds impressive. This one was only about 600,000 gallons. Still a significant amount, but somehow less compelling.

Fortunately the size of the tank wasn’t the reason I was going in. Reef HQ is the aquarium of the Great Barrier Reef, right next to the administrative offices managing the Great Barrier Reef National Park. That is some credibility right there. And despite the fact that it sounded impressive, the price tag was also about $25 per adult, more than my daily budget. So cool as it may be, I was going to skip it. But Florence had more free passes than she was using and she’d let me use one to come check it out. Fair enough. I can stay in Townsville for an extra day to attend a free museum.

The building was small by museum standards. I think it was even small by aquarium standards, though I’ve been to far fewer of those for comparison. The whole complex is functionally a central giant aquarium with a few small aquariums lining the outside walls around the main one. There are a couple other small bits to it but that is the majority. Sounds simple enough. It almost sounds underwhelming. But as it turns out, execution is about much more than a couple numbers.

The general tour was starting as I arrived. Simple enough. The guide was young and new, still in need of some pointers on the art of guiding tours. But at each small tank she brought up a few facts and pointed out why we should care about what we were looking at. Facts about something are great, but having the context that “this is the only one of this animal ever found on the reef” is a pretty good motivator for context and appreciation.

I stopped at the tank of seahorses. I don’t know what it is about them that draws me in so, and I don’t know if it matters. They look ridiculous. Somehow classy and classic and archaic and artistic and strange and stylish all at the same time. The slowest moving sea creatures (though now that doesn’t sound quite right), they hold on to the reef and camouflage themselves to avoid detection. The males carry the eggs to term, a fact which I had learned from Kurt Cobain’s fascination with them.*It seems a little bit idol-worshiping now, and it was, but I was in middle school at the time and was obsessed with the band, so I adopted an appreciation of seahorses. Their movement is graceful yet ridiculous. And their faces… long, odd, alien, chess piece, medieval horse faces. They intrigue me.

I spent ample time taking pictures of the creatures. More than any zoo pictures I’ve taken before these seemed to be coming out. From time to time the glass was apparent. But they moved slow and the light was high enough to allow mostly in-focus shots. I played around with shots of the luminescing coral to find my camera and my eyes recording different colors entirely. And I spent time at the windows of the giant tank snapping shots I could claim I got while snorkeling the reef if I can pretend I bought a camera enclosure for underwater use (and I suppose if I hadn’t just written this).

The next tour was the feeding. Sea monkeys to the fish, small fish to the anemones, larger fish to the barramundi, beef to the croc, and larger fish still to the sharks and giant fish in the main tank. Each species moved with speed and vigor. The saw-billed shark**lanced a fish on a tooth with a quick side swipe, swam off to a corner, then removed and devoured its catch.

The following tour was of the turtle hospital next door. I had been a minute late and got locked out of it. After a couple hours of looking at coral, at looking at seahorses, at looking at the feeding of sharks, I was flying pretty high. Having that door shut in my face dropped me immensely and my day turned foul immediately. There is no reason that it should have hit me the way it did, but for a couple minutes I stared at rays and sharks and angler fish and colors of living things I don’t usually encounter and I couldn’t care. I had missed the turtle talk.

One thing I’ve been finding on this trip is that my mood is becoming ever more mercurial. When I’m with someone who is sad, I cheer up. When someone else around me is cheery, I have the freedom to be sad. I unconsciously seek balance. But when it is just me I have no tether and can “go from square one to atmosphere then back again”*** in a minute or two. This was one of those times.

The door opened and I slipped in, told that I could sneak into the tour no problem. I was elated, though I started to realize that spending $5000 to rehabilitate a turtle seems excessive to me. I like turtles, but a turtle hospital? I guess if people are giving money to keep it going then why not?

After the up close with the recovering turtles, after the tours were over, I had an hour to fully soak in the museum. And I spent just about every minute before closing doing that. Spiny lobsters. Hammerhead sharks. Maori wrasses. Other fish that looked awesome and have no names in my head. Even a tunnel through a tank of clownfish.****

And the giant tunnel.

The main tank had a tunnel going through so you could be surrounded on the sides and top by fish. And it is an immersive experience. I was surrounded by water and life swimming around in all directions. The creatures had me transfixed. I just stared. Though I prefer forest to beaches and mountains to ocean, I seem to be much more enthralled by otters and platypuses and sharks and rays than I am by lions and tigers and giraffes. Who needs consistency of opinion?

I don’t think I will ever be a billionaire. It is unlikely I will ever have discretionary funds to spend on completely eccentric things. But if I do, I’ve started to build my crazy, eccentric mansion in my head. And one room of it is going to be this room. I want a giant aquarium. I’ll be realistic. It doesn’t have to have a full-on reef in it. Just a large salt-water aquarium (one million liters at least) with sharks and fish of all colors and sizes*****, eels, rays, crustaceans, and seahorses. And there will be a tunnel through it. I’ll be able to sit in there for hours. I might set up my computer in there, or a table with tea service. How awesome would it be to have high tea in that tunnel?

If I only become a multi-millionaire and the tunnel is too much, I’m willing to settle for a room with a full glass wall adjacent to the tank. It wouldn’t be ideal, but I’d be okay with it. And there would be parties in the aquarium room. One day, with all my stupid money.

Until then, I may start volunteering at an aquarium.

* They took the cover of the All Apologies single and made an appearance on a Nirvana shirt.

** It may not be called that. It is a Saw __ Shark. Or Saw __ Fish. I know it isn’t called a Swordfish, the term a couple near me kept using over and over.

*** Illy. “Happiness” Great song.

**** They created a tube tank where kids could stand up and be surrounded 360 degrees by clownfish. The execution was simple but brilliant. But Finding Nemo did something to clownfish that has irked me in every aquarium. I get that the movie gave a name to the fish, and so to a five year old kid it isn’t a clownfish. Every one is Nemo. Every single clownfish is the same character. I have accepted that. What actually irks me is that Nemo isn’t the fish they are thinking of. Yes, Nemo was a clownfish. But he is only on screen for a few minutes. The movie is about Nemo’s father’s search for Nemo. 90% of the on-screen clownfish is Nemo’s dad. They are thinking of his dad when they look at it. I suppose I can’t remember his name either, and calling it “Nemo’s Dad” sounds even more ridiculous.

***** Look at me, promoting a non-judgmental underwater world. Fish, you are beautiful at whatever size. And you can be any color you want and I will still include you. White. Black. Green. Purple. In fact, especially purple.

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This entry was posted on September 6, 2012 by in Australia, Queensland (Brisbane) and tagged , .

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