How can you tell when a crab is awake and when it is asleep? It’s not so easy

AT ORKNEY Marine Aquarium in South Ronaldsay Alan Jackson is a man with a passion. Don’t let the jungle of huts, sheds and vehicles which greets you as you turn in at the entrance fool you. This is not a ragbag operation but serious marine conservation. The weird and wonderful creatures to be found in the big tanks inside are a wonderful surprise and Alan and partner Cindy know far more about them than the average marine aquarium attendant. These animals are part of the family. The individuals have often been in the tanks for several years, a tribute in itself to the care and attention they receive.

Many bairns keep a goldfish or two, but despite traditional assumptions that fish are just fish, having no finer feelings, they do get lonely and bored. A solitary fish often begins to go a bit bonkers and starts behaving strangely. When two have lived in a tank for some time and one dies, the other frequently displays erratic and obsessive behaviour which for all the world resembles grieving.

Here, wherever possible, a selection of cohabiting species lives in a tank community. Several different species will swirl past you, each one having its own favourite corner of the tank as its territory. Minute species too share the big spaces in order to help keep them clean. You can stand and watch the fish, their scales gleaming and their eyes rolling curiously as they glide past, keeping you firmly in their sights.

When some of them get too big for their tanks, they are released into the sea. Sadly you can’t do that with goldfish. Sometimes other marine aquaria staff get to hear of a particular specimen outgrowing a tank and make a request to give it a home in their larger facility. Elvis the first, a conger eel which grew enormous, was one such. He swam all the way to Glasgow, in a large tank behind a trailer. Elvis the second, a younger, smaller version is now attempting to take his place.

There are so many things to learn about underwater life and times. It had never occurred to me that fish, crabs etc. sleep. I embarrassed myself by going to the main desk to report a crab which I thought might be ill. It was a giant partan, taking up a front row seat in a tank in the second alleyway in the centre. His eyes had been retracted into their sockets and the tiny feelery projections at the front of his head, whiskery fine and normally in a state of constant twitch, were motionless, crossed gently at their tips.

Oh dear. Crab was sleeping. I might have guessed. Still, I know now. I also know that all fish sleep, but each has a very subtly different way of arranging or being asleep. Dogfish, apparently, are the only species where the fish actually close their eyes. I wanted to ask Cindy about all the other ones. But it was time to go on by ourselves; more visitors had arrived and needed introducing to the set up. I hadn’t really looked at it properly, but listened in to the next group and had yet another surprise. The tanks weren’t just tanks, like the Shetland Field Studies Group tank, which we donated years ago to the North Atlantic Fisheries College, years ago, hoping to encourage the start of what might one day become a Shetland marine aquarium.

That tank cost a fortune, demanded regular, long hours of upkeep and attention and eventually had to be abandoned. These tanks were in fact built into the two long sides of a very long lorry container. They came from Ireland and had once been used, very lucratively, to ship premium shellfish, live, to restaurants in Spain.

This kind of purpose-built vehicle apparently is still being built and driven all over the world. Inside the container, a narrow pathway goes along between the two outer rows of tanks, from which the individual fish can be accessed, treated, lifted and transferred to other tanks etc. Then there are even stranger goodies.

There is a control section with an anaconda tangle of pipes and filters and pumps, each reaching every tank and creating the fine chemical balance bet­ween oxygen, nutrients and temperature which ensures not just survival of the fish, but real health. The complexity of these chunks of technology left me slightly woolly, but full of admiration. I had made the mistake of confusing Alan and Cindy with the kind of attendants who have learned their lines and who spout information at tourists all day and then go home. Alan and Cindy are home and so too are the tank communities. After the doors are closed and the last visitor leaves, the real fun begins. The creatures know Alan and Cindy and react to them in many fascinating ways. They can be moody, grumpy, cheerful, busy, lazy and cheeky.

Aware of decline in certain world species, Alan has been developing an idea which is still in its infancy, but which may well help both local wild lobster stocks and at the same time teach bairns about marine life and the threats to its health and safety.

We didn’t have long enough to do the visit justice. I wanted to read everything on the walls, from the delightful children’s letters of appreciation, to the species information sheets with all their detail and data. But the best moments were those spent listening to Alan and Cindy, recounting adventures of individuals, from the psychic conger eel to the sleeping partan. If you ever go there, make sure that you allow masses of extra time.

Jill Slee Blackadder


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