4th April 2023

I’ve always been drawn to the ocean, and when I was little I wanted to be a marine biologist. That didn’t work out for me, but when I was 18 I began scuba diving, and it opened up a whole new world and introduced me to experiences I could never have on land. Seeing animals like sea turtles and octopuses up close and in their natural habitat led me to wonder: What’s the point of aquariums? 

A quick browse on the website for my nearest branch of a national aquarium chain advertises a variety of sea turtles, sharks and rays, and many species of exotic fish. Aquariums would have you believe they are the best and safest way to see these beautiful animals, but the truth is, they’re actually pretty easy to see in the wild if you want. Scuba diving is a far more accessible hobby than it may appear and doesn’t necessarily require a lot of time or money, or the opportunity to visit exotic countries. 

If you want a close encounter with an aquatic animal, you can do a lot better than pushing through a crowd gathered around a glass tank.

Take the green sea turtle for example: A magnificent and beautiful animal I had the pleasure of seeing multiple times on a week-long diving trip to the Red Sea, Egypt. I was only a beginner and this was my first diving trip outside the UK. Every dive was filled with the most amazing and exotic animals like eels, blue-spotted rays, brightly coloured fish, and on more than one occasion; green sea turtles. On one encounter our group spotted a green sea turtle at the bottom of a reef. The dive guide led us slowly towards the animal and helped us arrange ourselves in a semi-circle at a respectable distance. We stayed for several minutes, hovering above the sea-bed while we watched the magnificent animal enjoy some kelp. We were close enough and there for long enough that I noticed a small crack in the sea turtle’s shell, possibly from an encounter with a predator, but whatever the cause, it meant that on a dive several days later I was able to recognise the same turtle, and it felt like seeing a friend. Not every sea turtle is as lucky as my friend in Egypt. While sea turtles naturally travel hundreds of miles, Lulu can only swim as far as her tank will allow. Lulu the green sea turtle was taken from the wild in 1940 and has spent her life since in captivity. It’s a staggeringly upsetting thought that she has spent over 80 years, more than twice my lifetime, in a small tank unable to exercise any natural behaviour or live a real life.

Sharks are often one of the main attractions in aquariums and they can be an exciting draw for many visitors, but they’re not that difficult to see in the wild if you want a close encounter while keeping a safe and responsible distance.  When I tell people that I love sharks, and scuba diving with them has always been on my  bucket list, their reaction is usually either shock, fear, or to ask if I’m okay. They have a reputation for being dangerous but a lot of species of shark, like most marine life, are no bother to humans at all. In fact, some can even be a little shy, such as blacktip reef sharks. These are fairly nervous little sharks and it’s often recommended to snorkel with them, as they can be scared off by the bubbles from a diver’s regulator. On one dive in the Philippines the guide gave a briefing beforehand to explain our route: he said we’d go into a cave, swim through a tunnel, and come out on the other side. He ended the brief with “And if there is a shark in the cave, we will wait for it to leave.” There were two, and we did. They were whitetip reef sharks, common in the Indian and Pacific Oceans, so much so that on a dive in the Philippines, certain sites were almost guaranteed to have a whitetip or two. The Philippines is also unique, in that the island of Malapascua can guarantee thresher shark sightings. 

Seeing these animals in the wild is obviously going to be pricier than a trip to an aquarium, but the encounters are so much more worthwhile: you get to see them up close, with nothing separating you while you observe a wild animal in their own habitat, and know that you are watching their natural behaviour. And scuba diving doesn’t have to break the bank, I have a fairly modest income and so I budget for these trips. It’s not hard to find cheaper flights, and many dive centres offer discounts if you stay in their own accommodation, or have offers as part of package holidays. You can hire any equipment you need, if it becomes a serious hobby you can buy your own gear at your own pace, and many sports shops sell reasonably priced wetsuits, masks and fins.

It also doesn’t take very much time to learn how to scuba dive. I learnt to dive at 18 with a dive club based in Manchester. Diving schools and clubs are spread all across the UK and are easy to find with a simple online search. The school was great about working to my schedule; I did the reading at my own pace, and when it came time for an informal quiz to ensure I’d understood the material, it was done in the evening after the dive shop had closed. The practical sessions were all in local swimming pools after hours, at a time that suited me and the other students. I did it this way because it was convenient, but many divers choose to learn while on holiday. I know several divers who have learnt at a diving school abroad, become qualified in a couple of days, and spent the rest of the holiday diving. You also don’t have to commit to a course if you’re unsure about it. Many schools, both in the UK and abroad, offer taster dives to introduce you and let you see if this is the right hobby for you.

If you’re concerned about your carbon footprint, the UK has some great diving locations and our waters are home to seals, lobsters, nudibranchs, and basking sharks. Lundy Island in Devon is one of the most famous diving destinations in the UK and is home to a colony of grey seals. It’s also a good diving location for beginners. If you want to go somewhere warmer, but within road or train distance of the UK, Spain offers some amazing diving and you can even choose between the North Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea. 

Having witnessed animals in the wild and in captivity, I have to wonder what the purpose of an aquarium is. They often claim it’s for conservation, but given that only 2% of fish species kept in captivity are actually endangered I can’t help but wonder what it is that aquariums think they’re achieving. If you look at the animals advertised on aquarium websites you’ll see that they’re often home to the same species. This isn’t necessarily because they’re endangered, or part of a breeding programme, it’s because those animals can survive the conditions that captivity provides, such as the stress of an unnaturally small enclosure. Or they can be easily replaced if they don’t survive, with visitors being none the wiser. The animals kept in aquariums don’t have the quality of life they deserve and would have in the wild, they’re simply the ones who can survive a miserable life in captivity.

However, some animals have environmental requirements that cannot be replicated by aquariums, or simply can’t cope with a life in captivity. One of the most abundant animals I saw in the Philippines is the nudibranch, a colourful sort of sea-slug. These are very difficult to keep in any kind of aquarium due to the difficulty in their feeding and tank requirements. Some species of marine life, such as the shortfin mako shark, (listed as Endangered on the IUCN list) simply don’t survive in aquariums at all.  Sadly, the longest a shortfin mako  has survived in captivity is five days.[2] Shortfin makos are very popular with divers and are one of the sharks on my bucket list. The best location to find shortfin makos and many other species of shark, is Baja California. Nudibranchs can be found all over the world, even in the UK, but they’re most commonly found in tropical waters and I saw them on almost every dive in the Philippines. 

Admittedly, aquariums do offer a convenient and economical means of seeing marine life up close, but at what cost? With little to show for their claims of conservation and breeding programmes, they’re nothing more than tourist attractions forcing animals on display and denying them a meaningful life in the wild. Human access to marine life isn’t a right, it’s a privilege and just because we may want to watch a sea turtle up close, is no reason to put one on display for her entire life.

           I have had incredible experiences while scuba diving; from watching a thresher shark roaming the ocean, to an octopus exploring the seabed, to a feathertail ray gliding across a reef but even the most mundane experience I have had while scuba diving has far surpassed any sighting through the distorted glass of a crowded aquarium. 

4th April 2023