Hooked on fish

Michael Farquhar (left) with Dr Patrick Garratt

He may be the new CEO of the Two Oceans Aquarium (he officially entered his new office in mid-December 2015), but Michael Farquhar isn’t new to the Aquarium. Like quite a few other staff members, Michael was an Aquarium volunteer (he started in 1994) before we opened to the public (in November 1995). He became a permanent staff member a few years later, in April 1997, when he was hired as an aquarist in charge of the Ocean Basket Kelp Forest Exhibit, the Penguin Exhibit and of water quality.

Asked whether he always knew he’d be involved with aquariums, his answer is no. “I remember my mother saying to me years ago, ‘You should work at an aquarium,’ and I said, ‘No! They don’t employ scientists!’ With a Masters of Science degree in zoology (specialising in marine sciences – intertidal zones and sea urchins to be precise), science is Michael’s first love, but he was in for quite a surprise when he eventually did make the leap to the Aquarium.

Here, Michael has had the opportunity to practise a hands-on kind of day-to-day science that involves animal husbandry and research and that has the thrill of immediacy often lacking in long-term academic work.

The lure of the blue

Michael with Maxine, the first ragged-tooth shark to be tagged and released by the Two Oceans Aquarium

“I’m a mad-keen fisherman,” says Michael. “I always have been. I started fishing when I was six and somehow got hooked on that. I grew up in Belgium and we used to go camping in Holland for our summer weekends – only an hour up the road from where we were living – and that’s where I fished.

“But when we arrived in South Africa I lived in Jo’burg, so I stopped fishing for seven or eight years. Then I went to Rhodes and discovered the South African coast. And the Eastern Cape coast … Port Alfred, Bushman’s River, Kenton on Sea, East London and the Transkei … Well, I think it’s the nicest coast in the country.

“There I got absolutely hooked on rock-and-surf fishing on our coast. That’s probably what set my path. All my studies in zoology ended up being marine-based projects.”

As for fishing in the Western Cape, Michael doesn’t take part in much marine fishing here. He was, however, introduced to dry-fly fishing by our former CEO Dr Patrick Garratt. “At one stage, and I certainly hope to get back to it, I was a member of the Cape Piscatorial Society and I’d go and catch trout in the streams, which Pat introduced me to. Fly fishing in the Cape streams is a treat. You get into the mountains, it’s quiet and peaceful. I enjoy fishing on my own or with my friends or with my son. Peace and quiet, and time on the rocks.

“I only do tag and release fishing. I can’t remember the last time I kept a fish,” he says.

An aquarium life

As vice-chairperson of the Pan-African Association of Zoos and Aquaria, Michael often travels in Africa. Here he is in Uganda with an animal you're not likely to see in the Aquarium

“When I arrived here 20-plus years ago, I was extremely practical and hands-on,” says Michael. “I enjoyed the diving, I enjoyed the boating, I enjoyed the fishing. I’ve been an aquarist here, I’ve been assistant curator, but my favourite role was operations manager. I looked after the boats, I did all the collections and I thoroughly enjoyed that, but my tenure was way too short. I think I only got two years or so in that job, and then I was promoted to curator.”

New challenges

Being the CEO of an aquarium, says Michael, is very much a businessman’s job. But the job poses a particular set of challenges that requires solid experience in the curatorial and operations management of an aquarium. Michael’s experience in operations and curatorial was essential in preparing him for running the business aspects of the Aquarium.

“To be asked to take over a business that’s functioning as well as the Two Oceans Aquarium currently is, is a treat. All I can do is just improve it from here. Often when people take over positions like this they need to fix something immediately, something drastic or something critical, and it’s very lucky not to have to. Very lucky.”

What makes a good aquarium, great?

Michael takes members on a behind-the-scenes tour in 2015. Photo by Ray D Chaplin

“A world-class facility offers world-class service. So, you can have a world-class facility, which we’re often told we have, that’s beautifully presented, but the service that you offer needs to match that. To achieve that you have to understand your audience, and we have such a diverse audience! From tourists who come here because it was recommended on TripAdvisor, to locals. You have to be able to appeal to all the segments of your market.”

Another aspect that makes an aquarium great is the intent behind the exhibits, says Michael. When he thinks of aquariums around the world that he considers great, Monterey Bay Aquarium and Waikiki Aquarium come to mind, for a very specific reason.

“Both of those are similar to us in that they predominantly display local animals. They have a purpose, which is conservation-driven, and which is local, and that has more meaning to me.

“Many aquariums have no collection teams, no boats, and they buy their animals off a shopping list.

“That’s not the same as actually trying to show the diversity of the two oceans, like we do, and to explain why South Africa has the two oceans, and the oceanography that’s associated with it, and to teach that to school kids and visitors alike.

“So, if I could put my finger on anything, it’s a clearer purpose in what you exhibit as opposed to just showing off pretty fish.”

A vision and a mission

Michael opens the Smart Living Challenge Zone - an interactive digital experience dedicated to sustainable living - with Lindie Buirski and Councillor Dave Bryant of the City of Cape Town. Photo by Bruce Sutherland

The stated vision of the Two Oceans Aquarium is “abundant and healthy oceans for life”. Our shared mission: To “inspire action for the future well being of our oceans”. But ask anyone who works here why they come to work in the mornings, and they’ll simply say: “to save the oceans”.

“It might sound overly grand,” says Michael, “but actually ‘save the oceans’ sums it up so clearly, because we’re involved in so many aspects of that work. Whether it’s Rethink the Bag, turtle conservation, or movement studies on sevengill sharks in our area, it all actually comes back to ‘save the oceans’. And in that, if we’re having to save them, it’s clear that the oceans are in peril.

“‘Save the oceans’ sums up the lot for me: all our conservation efforts, the environmental education, the research and the messages we’re trying to get across to the general public.”

For Michael, the heroes of the Aquarium are its staff members. “From the restaurant to visitor services to communications and sustainability, marketing and technical, curatorial, operational … The list is endless. Without the staff that we have, the place wouldn’t be what it is.”

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