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Under the sea

Sharks’ bodies are covered in tiny teeth and some turtles can breathe through their bottoms. Julie Haines uncovers some wacky aquatic facts during an enlightening visit to the National Aquarium of New Zealand in Napier . . .

They may have disabilities, but the Little Penguins at the National Aquarium of New Zealand are anything but shy.

In fact, some are total show ponies. As soon as we arrived at the popular Napier attraction, a playful penguin put on a performance for us, swimming as close to the viewing area as possible. He repeatedly darted down into the pool and then resurfaced, eyeballing the small gathering of entranced onlookers, spurring us to look on.

The aquarium runs a rehabilitation centre for Little Penguins (Kororā). Sick and injured penguins rest up until they are well enough to return to the wild. But none of the permanent residents in the Penguin Cove would be able to survive in the wild if they were released.

Burny arrived with burns on the soles of its feet. Bettypopu was suffering from malnutrition. Dora, Mo, Mr Mac and Tux were abandoned as chicks, Draco had a head injury, while Dave and Pepper were born in captivity. Captain lost an eye in a seabird attack, Flip was entangled in fishing line, Martin was attacked by a predator and Timmy had a spinal injury.

As the name suggests, the Little Penguin is the world's smallest species of penguin, only growing to about 30cm tall. Fascinatingly, penguins can drink salt water because they have glands above their eyes that filter the salt, then they sneeze it out. This is one of many weird and wonderful facts about aquatic life to be learned at the National Aquarium of New Zealand.

As I wandered through the rocky shore, flooded forest, and reptiles and amphibians exhibits, I learned that the water dragons at the aquarium can run on top of water. The tuatara, glimpsed hiding in their burrows or nearby foliage, can hold their breath for an hour. The coral in the aquarium's spectacular coral reef are animals, not plants, related to sea anemone and jellyfish.

The female Cichlid can carry several hundred eggs in her mouth for three weeks until they hatch. This raised more questions for me than it answered, for instance, how does the fish eat during that time without swallowing her babies?

Then there are the creatures that make you totally rethink your views on gender. Seahorse eggs are incubated by their dads. The Wrasse are mostly sequentially hermaphroditic, starting life as a female and changing to male when necessary. (Speaking of Wrasse, the Cleaner Wrasse has a rather unappealing diet — eating parasites, dead skin and mucus from larger fish.)

Some of the aquarium's aquatic animals go to extraordinary lengths to adapt to their environment in the wild.

The remarkable African lungfish are able to survive when their pools dry up by burrowing into the mud and sleeping in a cocoon of slime. The Upside Down Catfish swims upside down so it's easier to feed on insects and algae at the water's surface.

But as I learned, not all creatures have it so easy.

Breeding is an exhausting and deadly process for the Longfin eel. It swims 6000km from New Zealand to tropical waters near Tonga and lays between 1 million and 20 million eggs, only to die afterwards. The eggs grow into larvae that then drift on ocean currents all the way back to New Zealand.

The Yellow-margined Box Turtles can live to over 100 years old, and yet they are endangered due to the illegal pet trade, habitat destruction and being hunted for food and medicinal purposes. The Yellow-margined Box Turtles at the aquarium were rescued from the illegal pet trade.

The brown kiwi, although not aquatic, is one of the aquarium's most well-known vulnerable animals. The current resident kiwi is part of a nationwide breeding programme. Kiwi are displayed at the aquarium for around two years as sub-adults before being moved outdoors off-site for breeding. Visitors walk along a darkened corridor, eyes slowly adjusting until they can see the kiwi foraging for food behind a glass wall, oblivious to its enthralled audience.

The other popular feature at the aquarium is the 1.5 million litre Oceanarium. We felt like we were deep in the ocean as we watched sharks, stingrays and other reef fish swim over our heads in the underwater viewing tunnel. When there are not Covid restrictions, there are daily feeding times when the public can watch an aquarium diver get up close to the fish. (There are also daily feeding times and talks about the penguins, or you can pre-book a Little Penguin Close Encounter to learn about their day-to-day care and take part in hand-feeding them.)

Next to the oceanarium is a preserved giant squid. Another fun fact to learn before leaving — giant squid have three hearts and their eyes are the size of soccer balls.

The aquarium is more than a fun opportunity to come face to face with over 100 species of aquatic and land animals from around the world — it's educational too.

■ National Aquarium of New Zealand, Marine Parade, Napier


© Julie Haines 2021

RECOVERING: Dora was abandoned as a chick but is thriving at the National Aquarium.
CLOSE-UP: The underwater viewing tunnel offers fascinating views.
PLAYING TOGETHER: Little Penguins enjoy splashing about in the shallows of the Penguin Cove at the National Aquarium in Napier.
AMONG THE FISHES: A diver in the Oceanarium at the National Aquarium of New Zealand. All pictures by the National Aquarium of New Zealand