Archive for January, 2010

Ripley’s Aquarium in Canada

Friday, January 15th, 2010

(Michael Berrill

Just announced is a new aquarium, this time in Toronto at the foot of the CN Tower. This could be exciting: it is a real opportunity to create something of lasting value and impact. Will this actually happen?

Ripley’s has built two other aquaria, one at Gatlinburg, Tenn, the other at Myrtle Beach, SC. I haven’t seen either one, but their websites are helpful. Both seem to be focussed on coral reefs, and on sharks and rays, and each has a few other less dramatic displays. Both appear to be intent on providing decent educational experiences for school kids and other visitors. Both also do not have dolphins leaping about in depressing and humiliating captivity for the entertainment of visitors. Altogether, this bodes well for the new Toronto version.

Octopus in Ripley's Gatlinburg Aquarium (

There is a danger, though, that the new aquarium in Toronto, like aquaria almost everywhere, will want its visitors to feel well entertained, if not uplifted, by what they see. Afterall, who wants to pay to become upset or depressed? Yet this is an extraordinary opportunity to show not just the beauty and complexity of the world’s marine and freshwater ecosystems, but also to explore the catastrophic state many of them are in..

With a little courage and consultation, the designers of this new aquarium could have a major impact, not just locally in Toronto and Ontario, but globally. They could deal explicitly and honestly with the stresses that aquatic ecosystems currently experience and that they are expected to face in the very challenging decades ahead. If coral reefs are featured, then their beauty needs to be countered by their imminent decline and loss. If a tank of sharks is there to excite us, then details of the of the devastating business of shark finning need to be emphasized. Some aquaria are now featuring schools of jellyfish, which are beautiful and graceful, but also represent a frightening collapse of the fish-dominated ecosystems they may have replaced. The examples are discouragingly endless.

An endangered species and a fantasy species at Ripley's Myrtle Beach Aquarium (

This doesn’t mean that the aquarium experience needs to be all doom and gloom, for efforts to mitigate the various catastrophes can easily be featured as well. But we are now losing too much, and too quickly, because of overfishing, coastal development, pollution and climate change, for us to pretend we are not in a time of crisis.

Ripley’s Aquarium in Canada is an opportunity to it right, and teach the world.