02 March 2011

Can rays fly?

Kim Taylor
Kim with an African penguin at Bayworld

Kim Taylor is the Aquarium’s sponsorship coordinator.

The Two Oceans Aquarium operates independently, but is part of a greater aquarium community that includes uShaka Marine World in Durban, the East London Aquarium and Bayworld in Port Elizabeth (PE), among others. Being part of this community enables the transfer of knowledge and skills between the teams, and it also enables the transfer of animals when the need arises.

We were recently approached by Bayworld to adopt three beautiful baby giant short-tail stingrays (Dasyatis brevicaudata). The rays were temporarily sharing a tank with a cheeky little angelfish who made a habit of biting their wings.

The baby rays, referred to as pups, were born at Bayworld. Although each currently has a wingspan of only 30cm, their mother’s measured more than 1.8m. This species of ray can grow to a wingspan of around 3m, and can weigh up to 350kg.

Being the sponsorship consultant, I’m certainly not part of the Aquarium’s curatorial team. But I wanted to see some potential sponsors in PE, and so it was that I became wingman to Angus Nel, who is part of the collections team at the Aquarium, on his quest to make three little rays fly! 

We flew courtesy of 1time airline, the official animal carrier of the Two Oceans Aquarium. Transporting precious marine life is never without risk, and so Angus was understandably nervous of the outcome. 
On arrival in PE we drove straight to Bayworld.

Bayworld dolphins' ball on a rope

As an ex-Port Elizabethen, revisiting Bayworld was upsetting. Lack of government funding for what was once a prime tourist destination and leading aquarium has resulted in the closure of most of their exhibits, and recent reports indicate that unless the promised R11-million from the Eastern Cape Department of Economic Development and Environmental Affairs is forthcoming, they are facing a serious downscaling or complete closure. 

It’s hard to express how angry that makes me, and one can only imagine how disheartening it is for the dedicated staff and volunteers who have given so much to the facility over the years. The PE community is notably outraged that yet another Eastern Cape tourist destination has been allowed to degenerate to such a degree. 

Having spent a great deal of my childhood in the friendly city, I am very familiar with Bayworld. I loved the dolphin show, and always sat in the front row next to the pool, which usually necessitated a change of clothes thanks to frequent splashes from Dolly and Domino. 

In 2010, the two remaining dolphins (Dumisa and Domino) were relocated to Hong Kong. Looking over the dolphin pool, where a collection of green sea and loggerhead turtles now rise up intermittently, I saw the ball on a rope, still hanging from a platform above the pool, that the dolphins were trained to bump with their noses. It was swinging gently against a backdrop of perfectly blue PE sky as a sad little reminder of all that was, and all that was wasted.

Safety and security first

Angus and I were introduced to the little rays, all three in great condition and ready to fly to their new home. We were briefed by Steve at Bayworld, and agreed that we would return in the morning, after the sponsor meetings.

Easy does it ... Angus takes great care to be as gentle as possible

The next day, Angus loaded the three rays into a large cooler box. Each ray had to be placed in their own reinforced plastic bag, filled with water and pumped full of pure oxygen. Retrieving the rays from their temporary tank required absolute precision, and Angus had to be vigilant in order to avoid their stinging spines. Once the rays were secured in their box, Angus packed ice around them so that the temperature would remain constant despite the heat of the day. The box was then labelled and taped up, ready for flight. 

One, two, three ...

From there, we bid Bayworld farewell and headed for the cargo loading area of Port Elizabeth Airport, with Steve from Bayworld in tow. Steve, Angus and I gave the cargo team strict instructions regarding the handling of our special package. Blank stares and a few curious glances confirmed that they had never handled a box of stingrays before, and the cargo handlers wanted reassurance that whatever was in the box would not jump out and sting them! 

Once suitably adorned with an array of “Fragile”, “This Way Up” and “Animal Cargo” stickers, our box was ready for loading. A stiff drink at the airport was required as we waited for our plane and hoped that the rays were being treated to the VIP care they deserved.

On arrival in Cape Town, Angus was met by another member of our collections team, and together they drove the rays straight to the Aquarium. Later that evening I was thrilled to receive a call from the notably relieved Angus: The rays were absolutely fine and on their way to quarantine. 

After a month in quarantine, the rays have now joined the array of marine life on display at the Two Oceans Aquarium – come and visit them in the ray’s pool in the Oceans of Contrast: Atlantic Ocean Gallery. Here they act as ambassadors for their species, working with the Aquarium team to foster love, respect and understanding of our oceans and inspire support for their future well-being.

Ready to go!
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