22 August 2013

Hosting events at an aquarium: putting the animals first

Stuart Buchanan

This Saturday, the Two Oceans Aquarium’s I&J Predator Exhibit becomes the backdrop for an intimate, acoustic performance for one of South Africa’s best live bands: Fokofpolisiekar.

For fans of the band, the chance to see them play in Cape Town whilst majestic ragged-tooth sharks swim by is one not to be missed. However, there have been some concerns from members of the public about the lighting and sound equipment that will be used during the show, and the negative effects this may have on the animals at the Aquarium.

I caught up with Michael Farquhar, Aquarium Curator, to ask him about how events at the Aquarium and run, and what kind of safety precautions are put in place for the animals in their care.

Peter Sarstedt plays an acoustic show at the I&J Predator Exhibit
Why do you host events at the Aquarium? Is it just as an additional source of revenue?

We host functions at the Aquarium as they are a good additional revenue stream for us, but we also host educational sleepovers (about 12 per year), members’ events and fundraising events for other organisations such as the Cape Leopard Trust. Bear in mind that we are an entirely self-supporting organisation with no government or City subsidies. We therefore rely on additional revenue streams (over and above visitation) such as functions, diving, etc. to cover our operating costs.

How long have you been hosting events here?

Seventeen years.

What are the different types of events that the Aquarium has hosted?

Events range from weddings and birthday parties to product launches, sponsor dinners, conferences and workshops, cocktail evenings, outside broadcasts e.g. Top Billing and Kfm, corporate dinners, etc. and even a pole-dancing competition. In the past we have also hosted classical and jazz concert evenings. These are all in addition to the sleepovers for education and members. We are also a popular location for commercial/advertising shoots, and stills shoots. The list is so varied!

How involved are the curatorial team/animal experts in the events booking side of the Aquarium?

They are obviously not involved in the actual booking and admin side of functions, but they are involved in the supervision of particularly large or unusual events where required, and in providing divers if the function’s clients request them. Senior staff members supervise film shoots in the Aquarium, which require considerable technical know-how.

What kind of measures are put in place to ensure that an event doesn’t cause any stress to the animals?

There is always a functions staff member on duty at all events, and 24-hour security. In the event of an unusual event where we have additional concerns, a Curatorial staff member is specifically appointed to ensure the wellbeing of our animals.

Some exhibits are very sensitive to day length, e.g. the coral exhibit, and therefore the lights are set to go off at a fixed time, which is not adjusted for the benefit of function clients. Our most sensitive area is the Sappi River Meander Exhibit (which includes the African and rockhopper penguins), which is always closed from sunset to sunrise, irrespective of functions.

As we have been hosting functions for 17 years we have a very good understanding of which functions might be of concern for the animals’ wellbeing. In addition, all clients are informed from the outset of the limitations of this venue, which include no strobe/flash lighting, limited sound levels, no smoking, no mirror balls, etc.

The Amazing Space, hosted by the Two Oceans Aquarium. Photo courtesy of Kodak Tijan Media Concepts

Have you ever had close down an event in the past for violating your rules about causing stress to the animals?

No, but on some occasions we have reminded clients of the limitations on volume and special lighting (particularly film shoots). We have never had a situation where a client has not co-operated with our requests and this is most probably due to the detailed pre-function briefing which occurs in the discussions with every client. Generally clients respect and appreciate that they are in an unusual functions environment where there are live animals, and they are more than happy to comply with our requests.

How do the animals benefit from the Aquarium’s events department? Do you use any of the money raised for your conservation efforts?

Some functions are specifically aimed at raising funds and/or awareness for conservation, e.g. the Peter Sarstedt concert, which raised funds for the seal platform. As mentioned earlier, functions are an alternative revenue stream which allow us to continue our education and conservation work.

Why should businesses/people looking to host an event choose the Aquarium for their venue?

The Aquarium is a unique, intimate and beautiful venue to host an event. We have a professional functions team and offer onsite catering that can meet just about anyone’s needs. We have a variety of function venues, from a daytime conference venue to Tranquility, an intimate dinner venue, to the spectacular I&J Predator Exhibit and even the whole Aquarium. Many businesses want to support organisations that have a strong sustainability focus, on which we pride ourselves.

Ryan Sandes speaks at an event at the Two Oceans Aquarium
Let’s talk about this Saturday’s event specifically. Where is the event taking place?

The main performance is in front of the I&J Predator Exhibit, but the entire Aquarium will be open for the attendees.

What is the proximity between speakers and animals?

Although the speakers are in close proximity to the exhibit, they will be positioned to face away from the exhibit and volume is controlled.

Which animals are affected?

The closest exhibits are the Predator and the Kelp forest, but in 17 years of hosting functions, we have never considered the animals to be negatively affected.

How many people are attending?

Maximum of 200 but to date, only 100 tickets have been sold.

What noise, bass, decibel, frequency, etc. levels do the speakers produce?

I am sure that the speakers can produce something scary but we have several staff on site for functions, and decibel levels are monitored and a maximum of 85dB is enforced. Our clients are well aware of the limitations of the venue and have always co-operated when requested to reduce the volume.

What monitoring has been done on the animals, and the noise or sound disturbance to them?

Over the past 17 years we have monitored every event and watched our animals to see if there are any changes in behaviour, which might indicate stress or discomfort. There have been none.

What steps will the aquarium be taking to protect or monitor its animals during this performance?

We will have a Curatorial staff member present during the event to monitor the animals’ behaviour. If there are concerns, we will ask for the volume to be dropped and if necessary, stop the performance altogether.

Why did Two Oceans Aquarium decide to host this event?

We host events of all kinds.

How often do events of this nature occur at Two Oceans Aquarium?

This is a slightly unusual event and we probably host no more than one or two a year, hence we have extra staff on site for the evening.

Tickets are still available for this Saturday’s showclick here for more details and bookings

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