What lies beneath the surface? A visit to Sealife

A trip to a zoo or aquarium can be an enlightening and educational experience for us humans…but exactly how good is it for the fish?

Report by Chris P, Brighton

As a dad, I often visit places with my son that I wouldn’t otherwise go – Butlins, the roller disco (ouch) and various zoos. Recently, I took him to the Sealife Centre in Brighton, and while he had a good time, it got me thinking about the captivity of animals for ‘our’ benefit.

Sealife’s building is set under the arches near the pier, an environment which is both stunning and a little spooky in equal measures. Most of the tanks are set in the walls, with some more centrally, including ‘hands-on’ displays at which you can touch crabs and anemones.

A highlight is a large tank which you can view from above, or from underneath in a tunnel, which includes rays, sharks and turtles – massive, beautiful, thoughtful-looking animals which I could have watched for hours.

Educational posters and a few interactive thingummies are dotted around the place, and an animated video features a talking turtle encouraging us to clean up beach – all very conservation friendly.

There’s no doubt that it’s fascinating watching these creatures – and where else will most of us get to see them? Just as with zoos, aquariums can inspire children to love animals and become adults who actively help them.

But at what cost? That’s the conundrum many of us must face when visiting this kind of place – how do we work out if we’re doing more harm than good?

I guess one way is to use your eyes and common sense. While many of the tanks in Sealife seem a good size, I was concerned about a couple – a massive moray eel seemed to be way too large for his tank, and an octopus – which signage described as ‘intelligent’ – seemed alone in a bare cylinder.

I raised these points with Sealife itself, and got this reply:

“The tank immediately on the left as you enter the Victorian arcade measures 300cm x 300cm with a depth of 130cm, holding a volume of 11,700 litres not including the life support system. The Moray eels which you have commented on are predators which are closer to ambush style than active. They will sit in a crevice of some sort waiting for a prey item to swim past, rarely venturing far from their home crevice. The larger species of Moray eel are often found on wrecks and are popular with scuba divers as they can always be founding the same place. Considering all this, the display which currently houses the Moray eels is perfectly suited to them and their lifestyle.

“Our display housing our Giant Pacific Octopus is a 2m cylinder 1m deep with a volume of 3142 litres not including the life support system. All Octopus are solitary animals with a den and distinct home ranges. These home ranges only stretch as far as the octopus needs to travel to find a food source, and a den is often selected for its location. All our octopus displays are carefully designed to provide options for a den whilst giving the individual adequate space to stretch and roam. We also ensure all our octopuses are well entertained with a rotation of both toys and staff who play and interact with them. We are extremely proud of our record at SEA LIFE Brighton for keeping our Octopus to the maximum of their expected life span.”

Any experts reading can tell me if this is a fair explanation? The man who kindly replied also explained about how much conservation, breeding and rescue work Sealife do – they run 50 or so aquariums and attractions around the world.

Another way of working out if we’re doing the right thing is to do research. A quick Google search shows that CAPS (Captive Animal Protection Society) have been protesting about Sealife, and state that while the company takes pride in its conservation work, in reality only £250,000 has visibly been spent by Sealife’s parent company Merlin on a conservation project, from a 2012 revenue of £1,074,000,000. Is this enough?

There have also been protests at the Brighton Sealife Centre itself, from groups angered at the condition of the fish, and at the attempt by the centre to build a seal display. Concerns have been raised that for such a wealthy attraction, staff numbers seem low – allowing for example animals in the touch pools to be touched at random, glass to be banged.

So as an animal lover, do I want to go back? We all have to make that decision ourselves, and it may well be based on our own personal experiences: when I looked into that turtle’s eyes, I could imagine him talking to me. Was he saying ‘I like it here, it’s safe’, or was he saying ‘get me the hell out of here…’ Personally I think I know which it was.

Chris P is Campaigns and Communications Manager at Care for the Wild International, and manages the website which offers tourists factual information on animal tourism. This blog is his personal viewpoint.

Have you been to a tourist attraction which involves animals? Tell us about it – good or bad, just a few words and maybe a picture. And if the animals are suffering, together we can try and make a difference.