As you’ll see during the five episodes of The Wild Ones that are dedicated to us, there’s never a dull moment at the Two Oceans Aquarium, and change is the only constant. This is deliberate – it’s what keeps us relevant, keeps us critical of ourselves, and ultimately what ensures the vitality of a 23-year-old organisation that sees only the sky – or rather, the deepest ocean bed – as the limit.
One thing, however, has remained unchanged all these years, and that’s our purpose. We stand for something, proudly and loudly, and our vision and mission thread their way through everything we do – this is not simply a place of work, not simply a business to run, but an organisation with a higher cause: to save the oceans, and by extension, the planet. What we want to see is a healthy and abundant ocean for life, and what we want to achieve is to inspire people from all walks of life to take action for the future of life on our planet.
We asked CEO Michael Farquhar, Curator Maryke Musson and Brand and Sustainability Manager Helen Lockhart - three members of the Two Oceans Aquarium’s senior leadership team – what this purpose is all about.
Like so many other staff members, Michael Farquhar 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 Kelp Forest Exhibit, the Penguin Exhibit, and of water quality. Fast-forward through promotions and changes to 2015, when Michael was appointed CEO of the Two Oceans Aquarium. As far as the Aquarium goes, Michael has pretty much seen it all – and with his eyes firmly on the future, he is in charge of furthering our purpose while ensuring smooth sailing.
Two Oceans Aquarium: In The Wild Ones: Episode 5 (“An Aquatic Life: The Inner Workings”) you state that what we as the Two Oceans Aquarium are really trying to do is “save the planet”, which is a purpose that follows from our stated vision and mission. How is an aquarium like ours especially well positioned to drive a cause like this?
Michael Farquhar: In short, we have committed and passionate staff who are all trying to achieve the same thing and we have unique and inspiring exhibits which showcase the beauty and diversity of the South African coast.
TOA: In what ways has having a purpose-driven career been important to you? How do you think it changes the outlook and attitudes of our staff members, including yourself?
MF: Having a clear purpose is the only way we (as individuals, the Two Oceans Aquarium, and even as a nation) will ever achieve anything significant. Once you have a clear, shared purpose, you can develop a plan to achieve it. In this way, everyone in the organisation is able to contribute, and they understand how and why. This shared purpose has been critical to the success of the Aquarium over the last decade and the increasing reach we are achieving beyond our facility.
TOA: With the imminent reopening of the Kelp Forest Exhibit, you will sort of have come full circle - from first spotting the waterproofing issues nearly 20 years ago, to now preparing to reopen a mended and upgraded exhibit. What’s next for the Two Oceans Aquarium?
MF: We plan to give ourselves, and our visitors, the opportunity to recover from more than four years of construction on this site. This doesn’t mean we’re sitting back and enjoying the view, it means we are concentrating on certain aspects that have been largely ignored over the last four years.
We will also begin planning for the next big project, which is the Penguin Exhibit. The African penguin is an endangered species endemic to our coast. If we don’t help them, no one will. There is an opportunity that the zoo and aquarium community may be able to release captive-bred African penguins to bolster their numbers in the wild. This is an exciting opportunity with the potential to have significant conservation benefits. In preparation for this and to address some remedial works required in the current Penguin Exhibit, we plan to entirely remodel this space in order to give considerably more space to the penguins and improve the visitor experience in this exhibit.
No newcomer to the Two Oceans Aquarium, Maryke first joined the Aquarium as a student and was part of the building team in 1995, and then stayed on to take care of our seals, who were subsequently transferred to uShaka Sea World. She left the Aquarium a few years later to get into the business of aquaculture before rejoining the Aquarium family again in 2013 for a stint as Assistant Curator. Maryke became our Curator in 2015, and since then there’s been substantial growth in our research and conservation portfolios, including the turtle rescue, rehab and release programme as well as the scores of graduate students who come here to further their academic research.
Two Oceans Aquarium: What is it about this place that has kept you coming back over the years?
Maryke Musson: I must admit – not the smell of the fish kitchen wafting down the stairs in the morning, but definitely my love and passion for the ocean, which I can live out in all aspects of my job. My introduction to work as a marine biologist was at the old Sea World aquarium in Durban many years ago, while I was still at school. I went there to figure out whether marine science was the best career choice for me, and I fell in love with aquarium science.
My first real paying job was at the Two Oceans Aquarium, before Day One indeed, and I learnt an incredible amount in those early days. I was so fortunate to have had the opportunity to work with the likes of Lex Fearnhead, George and Margo Branch, Pat Garratt, Vincent Calder, and an amazing team of young and enthusiastic aquarists. My marine career foundation was laid down right here at the Aquarium. I learnt how to care for fish, from a biological and environmental perspective, and this combined with being surrounded by true conservationists, researchers and environmentalists moulded me into who I am today.
I returned because it is actually so much fun working here, but I was also hoping I could make a difference back here and inspire staff as well as visitors to care about our planet, just as I was inspired so many years ago by my mentors and colleagues. I feel like part of the history, the now, and the future of the Aquarium – that is a very special feeling.
TOA: How is an aquarium like ours especially well positioned to help drive ocean-positive feelings and behaviours?
MM: It is our responsibility to inspire our visitors to appreciate, care, understand, love, and respect. We can achieve that by introducing them to this amazing, magical and rather mystical underwater world. So few people get the opportunity to spend time in the ocean, and how can you learn to understand and care if you don’t know anything about it?
We are incredibly lucky to be so well placed to contribute hugely to marine conservation awareness and education, too. I really believe that showing something so beautiful, so special, so unusual, so intriguing will trigger our visitors, young and old, to learn more and appreciate more.
If you appreciate the wonders of the ocean, you will protect it – and that is exactly what we want to achieve – to get as many people as possible to actively protect our oceans and our planet.
TOA: How do you think having a purpose-driven career changes the outlook and attitudes of our staff members, including yourself?
MM: My career was built on my passion for the ocean. As a youngster I just wanted to swim in the sea and be a dolphin. I did not think far enough ahead as to how I would make a difference or what would be truly significant to me, or the purpose of it all. I literally just dove straight into the water. It took years of training, experience, development and support by so many “ocean gurus” to make me realise that actually, all along, I have been learning, working and living 100% towards saving our oceans.
People play a significant part in achieving just that – and I love focusing on the positive. Through my work and career over the last 24 years I have experienced how much people do still care, and that has inspired me, and still does, to have a very optimistic attitude with regards to the future.
The Aquarium team is incredibly dedicated, passionate and committed because we are all driven by that love for the ocean. Whether we teach about it, care for the animals, communicate it or research it, we are so connected by that purpose – saving our oceans. I always like to say – we all have to have a “porpoise” in life – and my “porpoise” is contributing to understanding and protecting “porpoises and all other sea creatures” as best as I possibly can. I am so incredibly proud of our staff. It is inspiring working with a group of people who absolutely believe in my “porpoise” too.
The Aquarium has phenomenal biological assets - meaning the 100 staff members and over 8 000 animals. What an incredible place.
We’re pretty sure that, once you’ve seen the show, you’ll want to work here. Well, get in line! Our staff members tend to stay for a very long time … Like Two Oceans Aquarium Brand and Sustainability Manager Helen Lockhart, who has been here now for 22 years. Helen started at the Aquarium in October 1995 and hasn’t looked back. She is at the helm of our sustainability and communications work – if you’ve ever heard about us and the work that we do, it’s because of Helen’s vision and unremitting hard work behind the scenes.
Two Oceans Aquarium: What is it about this place that has kept you coming back every day for nearly 23 years?
Helen Lockhart: I think it is partly something to do with my love of the natural world and wanting to be a positive change-maker in the world. But it also has a lot to do with the people I work with. It has been incredible seeing people grow over the years and become as passionate as they are about the oceans and making a difference. I am continually inspired by them. There is a great sense of unity at the Aquarium. We are all working towards the same goal – saving the oceans.
The Aquarium is also a place of constant learning – even today I am still learning so much about the marine world; it is fascinating! And then I have been fortunate to take on that which interests me throughout my time here – I’ve been involved with so many different facets of the organisation. And there is magic and beauty here.
TOA: How can an aquarium like ours help save the ocean?
HL: From the word go the Two Oceans Aquarium was set up as an “edutainment” facility with a strong focus on education and conservation. Over the years we have built very strong relationships with the Western Cape Education Department, with higher learning institutions, and with like-minded conservation organisations. We are thus able to access a wealth of marine knowledge and current research and are also able to showcase the work being done by our partners in the field. We are also very well connected to the international aquarium community.
We are extremely fortunate in that the oceans off southern Africa are home to many endemic species of plants and animals – and given our physical location we are able to collect most of our animals ourselves. This focus on “local” makes the Two Oceans Aquarium truly unique among aquariums - through beautiful exhibits which showcase the marine life which is right on our doorstep, we aim to captivate our visitors and enthrall them – and make them proud of their rich and diverse ocean heritage. And if you are proud of something you will want to protect it!
So I believe we are perfectly positioned to inspire people into action which will have positive benefits for the oceans. Baba Dioum really says it best:
“In the end, we will conserve only what we love,
We will love only what we understand,
We will understand only what we are taught.”
TOA: In what ways has having a purpose-driven career been important for you?
HL: This is critical for me. If we weren’t working towards education, conservation and sustainability I would not work here. I would not want to be associated with a facility that it is only about entertainment. We spend so much time at work so for me it is vital that I am doing something meaningful and making a contribution to something with a bigger purpose.
I think that goes for many of the people working here. I think many of our staff get hooked – they apply for a job and then once they spend time here they realise what we are all about and want to remain a part of it. The Aquarium gets under your skin! I also think that there is so much in the world that is fake, facile, and fleeting, so it is incredibly rewarding to be working towards something real and tangible with people who give a damn and care deeply.
This is just a tiny look into the lives of the countless passionate people keeping the animals in our care healthy, making sure our facilities are beautiful to receive you every day and taking our environmental education and conservation message further, all working behind the scenes. Scuba divers, veterinarians, accountants, graphic designers, teachers, puppeteers, aquarists, campaigners, drivers and technicians - all play a crucial role in the smooth, ongoing functioning of the Two Oceans Aquarium.