Sunday, June 17, 2007

RIP, Norton

If I’d known he was that sick when I visited him in May, I would have left a get well card.

I’m referring to the untimely death of the Georgia Aquarium’s young whale shark Norton, the second such death in five months.

Back in May, I criticized the Georgia Aquarium for offering a lousy aquarium experience. I’ve been to a few aquariums in my day, but I’ve never been to one where the facility’s corporate sponsors get more prominent play than the animal exhibits themselves. I was especially appalled by the screaming sales pitch from Home Depot, whose orange “Deepo” mascot was obviously targeting young children.

Now it seems I should have been worried about the animals, too:
In June 2005, Bernie Marcus, the founder of Home Depot, thrilled this city and raised the eyebrows of marine biologists with the news that he had bought the biggest fish in the world to swim in the biggest tank in the world — a facility he had designed specifically to accommodate whale sharks, bus-size swimmers that would be on display for the first time outside Asia.

But very little is known about these fish, a species that is considered to be endangered by many countries, and critics warned that whale sharks, which may live for decades in the wild, tend to fare much worse in captivity. A study of 16 whale sharks kept at the Okinawa Expo Aquarium from 1980 to 1998 found they survived, on average, 502 days in captivity. That facility has kept at least one whale shark for more than 10 years since that study ended.

Ignoring naysayers, the Georgia Aquarium has already replaced the two dead sharks with two new males, Taroko and Yushan, flown in from Taiwan on June 1. Those two fish, along with Alice and Trixie, the two females that joined the exhibit in 2006, are all eating on their own and behaving normally, Mr. Davis said.

On Wednesday, after news of the shark’s death, some marine biologists criticized the aquarium.

“It’s appalling, of course,” said Lori Marino, a biologist who studies whale biology and behavior at Emory University in Atlanta. “We all knew something like this was going to happen.

“I wonder how many more animals have to die before they realize that this is not a viable exhibit for these animals.”

I guess better a few endangered fish than Bernie Marcus’ ego.