27 July 2010

It’s a fish eat fish world

Renée Leeuwner
Xolela Batayi doing his thing in the kitchen

Renée Leeuwner is the Aquarium’s tourism co-ordinator. She’s a keen blogger and also the voice behind our Twitter profile.

I often have the opportunity to take first-time visitors around the Aquarium. I explain to them how we maintain the Aquarium and take care of the animals. During these tours, the most frequently asked question is certainly also the one with the most diverse answer.

If I had a penny for every time someone asked: “Man, it must take a lot to keep this place going?” I would be wealthy enough to sail off into the sunset on my very own yacht. Alas, I can’t claim remuneration for this question and, in any case, we live in South Africa and use rands, not pennies!

The answer to the question has many, many angles.

At the Aquarium we take into consideration each animal’s needs in order for us to ensure its well-being. Not only do we construct the exhibits in such a way as to replicate the animal’s natural habitat as closely as possible, but we also research the dietary requirements of all the animals, big, small and minute.

An aquarist cares for each exhibit and its inhabitants and it is the aquarist’s responsibility to check on these animals daily and to compile a feeding plan so that the animals receive optimal nutrition.

Xolela Batayi, our resident “sushi chef”, is in charge of preparing the food for the animals in the Aquarium. Each morning, the aquarists place their “order” with Xolela. He then gets to work chopping, liquidising, deboning, stuffing and mixing the food for the day, exactly the way the individual species like it. Whether it is filleted pilchard or cracked white mussels, finely chopped squid tentacles or squid stuffed with prawns, he does it all.

The kitchen is Xolela’s kingdom and he rules it like a good king should. Here he ensures that none of the animals in the Aquarium go hungry. That means that on Tuesdays and Thursdays, Xolela prepares 25 kilograms of food for the I&J Predator Exhibit and on Wednesdays the fish in the Kelp Forest Exhibit receive between 15 and 20 kilograms of food. This includes pilchards and squid that are chopped up in various sizes to ensure that all the fish get their fill.

He also prepares the feeds for the stingrays and turtles that happen on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, again making sure that there are a variety of food types and sizes for the animals to choose from.

He prepares food for smaller exhibits on a daily basis, catering to individual tastes that include pilchard fillet for the cryptic fish, prawns and squid mantles for the turtles and liquidised hake for the Southern mullet.

Our walk-in freezer is filled with gourmet delights, including freshly collected limpets for the enjoyment of the African black oystercatcher; frozen mice for the delicate palate of the giant bullfrog; boxes of pilchards for the discerning penguins; and bigger fish, bloodworm (rather don’t ask) and large quantities of hake for the large sharks.

The walk-in fridge holds other treasures – fruit for the birds, vegetables for the crickets and cockroaches and prepared food like redbait and prawns, as well as mulberry leaves for the silkworms.

Aquarist at work!

Silkworms? Cockroaches? Crickets? Yes, we have some creepy crawlies here at the Aquarium and they are used as food in our Frogs: Beyond the Pond exhibit. We like to keep the food chain as strong as possible.

Have I mentioned the live mealworm and Cape bulbul treats? Not? Well, those also feature in the kitchen and the birds love them.

Our concern for the animals’ nutrition doesn’t end with food, though. Our fish, penguins, sharks and turtles all receive vitamin and mineral supplements to ensure that they remain in peak condition and that the entire spectrum of nutritional needs is met.

The majority of the food that we use is sponsored by I&J and for this we are very grateful. Unfortunately, red bait and limpets are not big on human menus, so we can’t just walk into a shop and buy these.

Our aquarists need to go out and collect what is needed. This means diving for red bait, collecting limpets when the tide is just right, and scooping mysids from the nearby marina. All in a day’s work for our collection team.

Feeding the multitude of animals in the Aquarium takes research, planning, sourcing, innovation and, not to forget, Xolela’s steady hands. In the end, we all have to eat. Even the giant spider crabs, lobsters, anemones, sharks, penguins, klipvis, rays, turtles, frogs, yellowtail, galjoen, jellyfish …

See our feeding-time schedule.

Other blogs by Renée:

Joseph the cheetah visits the Aquarium
Feel it – it is here!
Two Oceans Aquarium: A photo essay

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