The GA aquarium continues to piss me off

1 06 2007

In mid-January of this year, “Ralph” the whale shark (Rhincodon typus) died at the Georgia Aquarium. Most initial news reports suggested that no one had any idea why the giant shark stopped swimming and soon died, the aquarium later admitting that the shark had not been eating for some time. In order to ensure that the animal gained enough nutrition, aquarium staff force-fed Ralph with a tube shoved down his throat, but this course did not help the shark.

The cause of death was reported to be peritonitis caused by a puncture in Ralph’s stomach. Aquarium staff and some researchers present suggested that the PVC pipe used to feed Ralph did not cause the fatal perforation of the stomach, although they conceded that it may have been contributory to his ill-health. Another male whale shark, “Norton,” stopped eating for a time as well, but I can only assume that he has recovered as there has been no more news, and I can’t say I’ve heard anything involving the female whale sharks Alice & Trixie. In the wake of Ralph’s death, Taiwan (which supplied the aquarium with the sharks) was reluctant to give the exhibitors any more, but apparently they gave in as two new whale sharks arrived at the aquarium today.

I really don’t see the reason for adding two more whale sharks when the aquarium already had three and one died from causes that no one at the aquarium seems to understand (either that or they’re lying). Every now and then I hear the assertion that these animals should be kept for a breeding program, but for a breeding program you need to be able to keep animals alive and well in captivity, something that is even more difficult with pelagic marine species. Plus, even if the sharks did breed we would have to assume they’d want to release the babies into the wild or that any country would let them do so, so I can’t even be sure they have “good intentions.” I do not have high hopes for the new whale sharks, and I have to wonder if they feel a bit cramped; whale sharks are large and far-ranging, and even the biggest aquarium is probably too small.

Unfortunately the Georgia Aquarium hasn’t been exactly forthcoming with information regarding Ralph’s death, nor are they likely to. If it was discovered that they contributed to the death of a threatened animal through lax husbandry practices (which I think is quite likely), they’d lose a lot of credibility and perhaps even the ability to collect rare specimens in the future, making it in the best interests to simply wave their hands around and side-step questions whenever the name “Ralph” comes up.



4 responses

1 06 2007

I visited the GA aquarium about six weeks ago and was NOT impressed, it is very much over-rated. I am a huge fan of the Chattanooga Aquarium, it’s much more eco-system focused instead of having a few headline species. Example: GA has loggerhead turtles, TN probably has 30-40 (at least) species of aquatic turtles in mixed-species exhibits that are intricate simulations of the natural river systems.

From what I gathered the whale sharks are juveniles, and their tank is already very full, what are they expecting to do with them when they mature?

I also really disagree with the beluga whale exhibit. In their educational presentation they mention the whales dive thousands of feet in the wild…yet they have three in a three story tank. I’m not an animal rights fanatic against all animals in captivity, but that still seems very wrong to me.

One other gripe, their labels and educational signs are nothing compared to many other aquariums I’ve been to (example, Chattanooga), in many exhibits it’s hard to tell how many/what species you are looking at, except of course for the high-draw ones like the whale sharks, etc.

GA seems to be kind of like Disneyland vs TN as Six Flags, if you want to make an analogy with rides: it has lots of show and pretty things and might be good for people with short attention spans, but the people who want a serious experience should go to the other one.

1 06 2007

Thanks for the comments Anne-Marie. I actually have a mug from the GA aquarium given to me as a Christmas gift, although I have yet to use it (that’s how irked at I am at the place, silly as it may seem). I had a similar reaction when I visited Sea World Orlando last summer for the first time in many years; seeing so many cetaceans treated like clowns saddened me deeply. Even the highlight of the day, feeding seals and sea lions, was marred by the realization that most of the animals seemed to be old performance animals no longer suited to the stage (when I waved to them, they waved back, hoping to be rewarded with a fish [I obliged them, of course]).

Anyway, I think you’re right about the whale sharks; they’re all juveniles, and the owners hope to breed them (although, like I said, this doesn’t mean that they have intentions to help conservation). One of the financial backers for the aquarium is a big-wheel at Home Despot Depot., and seems to care little for the science of keeping such unique animals in captivity.

I’m saddened to hear your report of the belugas as well; I know shortly before Ralph died, a beluga at the aquarium was euthenized. Personally, I don’t believe that cetaceans should be kept in public aquariums, at least not in the way they’re presently contained. Keeping such intelligent animals in relatively shallow concrete pools is not good for them mentally (or even physically), but it continues because they are such a huge draw the aquariums. I don’t expect them all to go free into the wild, but I don’t understand how we can recognize their intelligence but keep them locked up.

I used to love aquariums, but now it’s hard to visit them; I have to wonder how many fish die and are replaced, unbeknownst to the visitors, as well as the many sharks that die because we don’t know how to keep them and marine mammals that are mistreated even though we think we’ve giving them “the best care.”

13 06 2007
GA Aquarium suffers 2nd Whale Shark Death « Laelaps

[…] Aquarium suffers 2nd Whale Shark Death 13 06 2007 Just two weeks ago I wrote about the death of “Ralph”, one of the star attractions of the Georgia Aquarium, as two new whale sharks were being introduced […]

23 01 2008


Very good article.

Keep up the good work.



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