How Ripley’s Aquarium keeps its sharks from eating anything they aren’t supposed to

How Ripley’s Aquarium keeps its sharks from eating anything they aren’t supposed to

Ripley’s Aquarium of Canada has a lot of mouths to feed: about 16,000 of them, swimming around in aquariums throughout the facility. The largest of those tanks is Dangerous Lagoon, a 2.5-million-litre enclosure with a giant glass tunnel in the middle for visitors to walk through. The challenges involved in feeding the inhabitants of Dangerous Lagoon are manifold, but biggest among them is the sharks: they swim freely throughout the exhibit, meaning handlers have to work to ensure that none of the aquarium’s smaller fish accidentally become shark food (though it still happens every so often). How does it all work? Here, a step-by-step look.

(Image: Giordano Ciampini) (Image: Giordano Ciampini)
 

The fish that’ll end up as shark feed are stored in a large walk-in freezer. “We get shipments in truckloads, so anyone available comes and helps to move it from the loading dock to the freezer,” says diver Daphne Tai. The freezer is less than half full in this picture.

(Image: Giordano Ciampini) (Image: Giordano Ciampini)
 

At 8 a.m., the food preparation begins. The team moves specific amounts of different types of fish from the freezer to the fridge. They use a saw to cut through the large slabs of frozen fish, then divide it all into labeled plastic containers.

(Image: Giordano Ciampini) (Image: Giordano Ciampini)
 

A chart lists all the food that the Dangerous Lagoon has gone through in a week—the fish are fed every day except Saturday, and the sharks are fed three days a week. “It’s probably about a third of all the food that we feed the entire aquarium,” Tai says. “We’re feeding 125 pounds of food just for today, but we go through about 1,000 pounds each week.”

(Image: Giordano Ciampini) (Image: Giordano Ciampini)
 

The prep team starts chopping. Each person has a preferred knife. “I like the big knife because I can do more at once,” diver Kareina D’Souza says.

(Image: Giordano Ciampini) (Image: Giordano Ciampini)
 

The gloves don’t help with the smell. “People on the subway will actually get up and move if you don’t have a good shower,” D’Souza says. “It’s disgusting.”

(Image: Giordano Ciampini) (Image: Giordano Ciampini)
 

The sharks prefer whole fish, but the heads and tails, which don’t have much nutritional value, are cut off and thrown in the compost. The fish comes from some of the same companies that supply Toronto restaurants.

(Image: Giordano Ciampini) (Image: Giordano Ciampini)
 

After the morning prep team has finished chopping and sorting the fish—a process that takes two or three hours—the aquarists come in. They add small pellets to the food to provide extra nutrition for the smaller fish, who subsist on capelin, chopped pieces of smelt, squid and krill.

(Image: Giordano Ciampini) (Image: Giordano Ciampini)
 

Every large piece of fish gets a multivitamin tablet shoved inside before it’s divvied up for the sharks.

(Image: Giordano Ciampini) (Image: Giordano Ciampini)
 

Before the feeding, the large green sea turtles are herded into a small pool so that they don’t get in the way of the sharks’ meal. Each turtle has a coloured rod that they recognize and swim toward to be hand-fed.

(Image: Giordano Ciampini) (Image: Giordano Ciampini)
 

For fish that prefer to eat at the top of the water, two aquarists throw small pieces of food into the far corners of the tank to lure the little swimmers away from the sharks’ feeding stations. Most of the fish are fed through a series of tubes that run down to the bottom of the tank. “It’s like a torpedo,” aquarist Nicole Petrovskis says. “We use a funnel to fill a trap in the tube. Then we turn the red lever and water shoots from the pump through the trap, which pushes the food through the system and out the bottom of the tank. It’s how we target-feed the fish at the bottom, to draw them away from the sharks.”

(Image: Giordano Ciampini) (Image: Giordano Ciampini)
 

The aquarists carry pieces of fish out to the Dangerous Lagoon area in silver buckets (it looks nicer to visitors than the stained, semi-transparent plastic bins in the fridge). Each aquarist feeds a specific type of animal and stands in a specific spot—that way, the sharks and fish know where to go to get their food.

(Image: Giordano Ciampini) (Image: Giordano Ciampini)
 

As the aquarists walk along the edge of the Dangerous Lagoon tank, they turn off the air lifts—small circular jets along the wall near the surface of the water. Like a dinner bell, that alerts the sharks to the presence of food. Each aquarist has to pass a quiz proving they can identify each shark before being allowed to feed them; that way, they can keep track of each shark’s individual eating habits.

(Image: Giordano Ciampini) (Image: Giordano Ciampini)
 

To feed the sharks, an aquarist pierces one or two of the prepared fish with metal barbs at the end of a long pole. As a shark approaches, they position the fish slightly to the side of the shark’s mouth. Once the fish is in the shark’s mouth, the aquarist pushes down to make sure the pole isn’t catching on the shark’s teeth. The process is surprisingly calm.

(Image: Giordano Ciampini) (Image: Giordano Ciampini)
 

“People frequently lose their poles while feeding the sharks. I’ve even fallen in the tank,” says Petrovskis. “It’s not scary. I didn’t think the shark was going to bite me at all. When I fell, all the sharks heard the noise and flew to the other side of the tank and wouldn’t come near that feeding station for days. People ask if I was scared, but the first thing I thought of when I fell in was, ‘Damn, it’s weird to swim with shoes on.’”