What I saw at SeaWorld

SeaWorld on the Gold Coast, about one and a half hours’ drive from my place, is an odd place. It seems to strive to be educational, but is also very much about selling marine-themed rides to kids. It’s successful in this (at $79 an adult ticket, it should be), as it was very busy on the day we went – during the week and during school term. It must be horrendously packed with hurtling-about kiddies and their harassed parents in school holidays.

I hear SeaWorld does a lot of good research, though, so at least the money is going to a good cause. It sure helps out Australian Seabird Rescue with caring for turtles and such.

Andrew remembers many small tanks from his visit as a kid, but they have been replaced by an Antarctic exhibit, with the usual interactive learning centres and the odd penguin or three. There are two species of penguin on exhibit: the king (Aptenodytes patagonicus) and the gentoo (Pygoscelis papua).

King penguin

The photo below is a little blurry as these guys were really fanging around their tank, but I like the turbulence effect off their flippers.

Who says penguins can't fly?

The gentoos were moulting and so keeping out of the water, as they have lost their waterproofing until their new feathers grow.

Moulting gentoo

The other normally ice-bound attraction, in a separate, large enclosure, was a couple of polar bears (Ursus maritimus). It was about 35 degrees C (95 degrees F) in the shade, so the bears must have been sweltering. A sign informed us that this sort of temperature occurs occasionally in their natural habitat. Better get used to it here, mate!

Sweltering polar bear

There are a couple of large touch pools, where the public can gently contact starfish and rays. You can buy a paper cup of fish to encourage the rays to come to you. The identifications below are ‘best guesses’ on my part – I couldn’t find any signage with names. (I referred to Sea Fishes of Southern Australia (Hutchins and Swainston) and Coastal Fishes of South-Eastern Australia (Kuiter).)

Smooth stingrays (Dasyatis brevicaudata) were the most common of the rays in the pool. I managed to run my fingers gently along the back of a couple as they zoomed past. I was reminded of the surprise I felt when I first touched a cowray at the Georgia Aquarium – I was expecting a sandpaper-like texture, but they are so soft, like the proverbial baby’s bottom.

Smooth stingray

The smooth stingray grows into Australia’s largest, measured at up to 2 metres (6.5 feet). I wonder at what stage SeaWorld will either let these go back to the wild (I imagine that’s unlikely) or transfer them to the big tank (I’ll get to that tank later). They will outgrow the touch pool at some stage.

I couldn’t see the white spots on the white-spotted shovelnose ray (Rhynchobatus australiae) as it zoomed past – the reflections off the water got in the way.

White-spotted shovelnose ray (right)

I’m guessing the ray below is an eagle ray (Myliobatis australis), because of its distinctive head shape.

Eagle ray

The spots on the blue-spotted fantail ray (Myliobatis australis) are attractive.

Blue-spotted fantail ray

The other touch pool had spineless animals – sea stars, sea urchins and sea cucumbers. The sea star below is the spotted sea star (Pentaceraster regulus). Their calcium-encrusted surface makes them hard to the touch and protects them to a certain degree against predators.

Spotted sea star

The yellow sea cucumber below (referred to as the ‘curry fish’ because of its edible nature in South-East Asia – currently selling for US$35 for 1000) is the common (until overfishing inevitably occurs) Stichopus variegatus.

Curry fish

I’m not sure what the red sea cucumber sharing the pool is.

Possibly Chirodota gigas

The pool also contained a couple of leopard shark (also called zebra sharks, Stegostoma fasciatum) eggs. According to the Australian Museum, the zebra shark is ‘a sluggish, slow-moving fish that feeds primarily on gastropod and bivalve molluscs. … It is unaggressive … and considered harmless’. You can sometimes find these egg cases, empty, on the beach.

Leopard shark egg

There is one big tank in which various species swim. You can buy a dive with the sharks, tropical fish and rays.

Main SeaWorld tank

The big tank has reef sections and flat sandy floor sections.

Another view of the main tank

I was interested to see many fish I was unfamiliar with, but which are nonetheless common, like the long-horned cowfish (Lactoria cornuta) …

Long-horned cowfish

… and a puffer fish …

Puffer fish

… and another horned wonder, the bluespine unicornfish (Naso unicornis) …

Bluespine unicornfish

In general, I was disappointed at the emphasis on children’s entertainment, but I did see some animals I hadn’t seen before. Some adventures just don’t work out as expected.

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