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Dead Dolphins and Ripcurl T-Shirts: Revisiting Perth's Underwater World

For Perth residents of a certain age, Underwater World maintains a nostalgic shimmer. It was a place you became friends with fish, and a time when life was in the future. I went back to see how things have changed.
02 August 2016, 12:00am

Me with a gift shop fish pyramid. All photos by the author.

In Year Two, our class was asked to make a pinboard with pictures of our interests and hobbies stuck on it. Next to "Compsognathus is the best dinosaur," I put a photo I had taken of three dolphins jumping. It read: "I love dolphins."

Perth's iconic public aquarium, Underwater World, is now known as Aquarium of Western Australia or AQWA. As a kid, I loved the dolphins who lived there. When those three dolphins died in 2000, all within a week of one another, I was heartbroken. Two had been mysteriously poisoned and, as it turned out, 10-year-old Echo "died of a broken heart."

Underwater World's dolphins sometime in the 90s. Photo via madphin.com

For Perth residents of a certain age, Underwater World maintains a peculiar nostalgic shimmer. Built in 1988, the aesthetic is strongly of that era: beige bricks, aquamarine paint scheme, off-brand merchandising. Perth kids my age group still speak of "the blue house" (a hideous ultramarine blue mansion on the coastal road) that you'd have to pass by to reach the sharks, turtles, dolphins, and touch pool. It's a part of our collective memory.

I grew up wanting to be a paleontologist, a zoologist, or a marine biologist. So my mum took me to Underwater World a lot. She tried to tell me the dolphins had escaped, but I saw the headlines and knew otherwise. I stopped going to AQWA. I went there once more, as an ironic 20-year-old, trying to spice up a date.

Last weekend, for the first time in six years, I visited again. What I found was a place stuck in time—a static tone poem to Perth's unchanging myopia. A wet and not so wild totem of suburban sprawl and second-generation Howard's Battlers.

Besides the ticket price (ouch! $30!) the first thing that struck me about AQWA was how the information plaques besides the exhibitions were formatted like poetry. See above.

Maybe Robert Pinsky is writing their signage, we'll never know.

The look of the place hasn't changed since the early 2000s, when they rebranded as AQWA and gave themselves a facelift. That was 15-odd years ago. Now the faded blue carpets and deep blue paint looks tired, daggy. The sprayed on cement/underwater cave is a holdover from the 1990s. I can't believe how the fake lumpy wall stalactites take me back to being seven years.

The blue ringed octopus tank looks like it's all set up for the dankest vaporwave mix of 2009. They should make this a space for Chillwave soundcloud kids to sit and feel at ease. I couldn't catch sight of the octopus.

The biggest absence, besides the dolphins, is the touch pool. This is the touch pool now, but the old one used to be bedlam. We'd all but hold our heads under, picking up Irwin's Bane (stingrays), jellyfish, crabs, and (I can't even fathom this now) young sea turtles.

After the dolphins were murdered they must have decided to err away from animal cruelty, as much as kids love it. Their new touch pool is little more than an excuse to enjoy the phallic girth of a lumpy sea slug. Also they've got these orange things to magnify whatever you're squelching. But they do nothing for the pond's all round aesthetic.

Photo via madphin.com

Kids in the 1990s were really the Australia's last generation to witness animal cruelty as entertainment. After the dolphins, the park installed a seal tank. You could go below water level, watch them frolic and catch fish, and you could watch them doing shows at certain hours. But now even the seals are gone. I can't find what happened to them—I'm guessing rehabilitation. Their former enclosure is now a makeshift reef with not much going on in it. I feel a bit... bored, and the screaming kids around me seem bored too. Say what you want about animals doing tricks in captivity, but they do hold your focus.

The old marina where the dolphins were is full of boats. They're building a new stingray rehabilitation pool there now. They still have the wooden auditorium where we'd sit and watch them jumping.

Next we make our way to the big draw: the underwater oceanic vista tank. You ride a conveyor belt around this sea cave in a big glass tube, watching sharks and stingrays flit overhead. They appear a third smaller than they actually are. As a kid, we'd tear laps through here and fight over the milk crates that you were given to stand on.

There are no milk crates now, and even the sea turtle is gone.

We finish in the gift shop. It looks like it's had the same stuff on its shelves since 1994. The Graham Base art books are a bit of a giveaway. Glass blown flounders and shell friendship bracelets make me think of those other tried-and-true Perthian getaways of the mid 90s: Monkey Mia and Bali.

I try on a hat and wonder who'd buy a hat. Actually, what I can't stop thinking is who comes here? _Who comes to AQWA now?_I feel the parents around me (roughly my age), who all look like mining boom burnouts, all have the same vibe of something absent about them. They miss the dolphins. We miss the seals. We miss the games and the turtle juggling.

The seals and dolphins are gone, but the crowds are the same. Family upon family, all time-poor mums and dads with the same nauseating bleakness etched on their faces—and so many kids to wrangle. All that's changed is the graphic design on their Rip Curl shirts. Otherwise they're the same haggard adults of my childhood, all falling on old phrases like "don't make me belt you Kevin."

The clientele of AQWA are the new rich who didn't quite stick the landing after the boom. With Perth's economy foundering, they all seem to be sliding back into that flatlining past, the turn of the century, somewhere around that week where Echo the dolphin died of a broken heart.

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