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NB: as of 23 September 2008, all new artSMart articles are being published on the site news.artsmart.co.za.

DANGEROUS CREATURES (article first published : 2007-04-6)

I first visited the fascinating Wreck Aquarium at uShaka Marine World soon after it opened, but haven’t seen it since. Although I have since frequented the beautiful Cargo Hold Restaurant several times with visiting colleagues or friends for a meal. So, when I received the publicity material for Sea World’s newest and most exciting exhibition, Dangerous Creatures, I felt it was time to head for uShaka again. This time I took along my sister and my secretary – and most of my enjoyment of the morning was watching their response to this unique aquarium.

A legend has been created around a Phantom Ship that supposedly ran aground on the Durban beachfront. It doesn’t matter whether you believe the story or not, you will immediately be captivated by this masterpiece of scenic and prop creators’ art. In producing the uShaka experience, the designers involved the skills and vision of those who had created some of the Disney World theme parks. The public is able to appreciate the natural habitat of the fishy creatures through a wide variety of marine settings like coral reefs and sea beds. In some cases, you are able to see the sharks from above from viewing platforms and bridges.

In the depths of the “ship” is housed Sea World, which offers a meandering thoroughfare through the bowels of a wreck on the bottom of the sea with the glass windows providing a view of a marvellous range of sea life of all descriptions. If you listen carefully, you’ll hear the sound of dripping water and the crash of waves on a reef. You will be surrounded by skilfully-aged shipping trunks and crates, ropes, mussel-encrusted lanterns and faded notices. It’s a magical journey.

Once you have gone through the aquarium itself, you are presented with a sign that challenges you to enter the Dangerous Creatures exhibition. The legend is that the Sea World team finally gained access to The Phantom Ship’s cargo storage hold and discovered a dark secret - crates holding a collection of rare and endangered species of snake, spider, scorpion, frog and lizard. The faint-hearted must simply walk on and out! The brave-hearted – that was us – venture forth!

Whoever put this exhibition together is to be commended for correctly presenting a collection of varying “nasties” from an academic perspective as well as infusing such a strong sense of comedy and theatre into the room. A sudden burst of activity in a box leads one to believe that something fairly nasty is trying to get out. One crate bears the notice: “Danger – missing!” – asking passers by to keep an eye-out for whatever supposedly left its lodgings Very clever!

The area is small and there’s no standing back from a distance to view the exhibits. You are no more than a few metres away from a spitting cobra or black mamba, only separated from that deadly poison by a thick glass. ! I absolutely loathe frogs so I have to admit that I didn’t linger on what my companions pronounced as fascinating exhibits. Turn a corner and a hiss stops you in your tracks as you find you are about to step on a deadly poisonous snake. Closer inspection will prove that it’s a superbly created facsimile – in fact, you can buy one outside in the shopping walk. But still you’re not quite sure, the creature looks so real. Adding to the amusement, are the words on the back of the attendant’s overall: “If you see me running, follow me!”

As you leave, having learnt more about these creatures that you probably ever would have done in the normal course of events, you read the writing on the heavy plastic strip barrier. It goes something like – “Don’t be afraid. The only dangerous creature in here is … you”.

The Phantom Ship houses a couple of restaurants and a bar on the deck area. The Cargo Hold is situated on two levels alongside the shark tank so diners feel as if they are one with the fishy creatures. Makes having fish for lunch a bit cannibalistic!

The menu is extensive and you enjoy the attendance of a good-looking maitre d’ in crisp naval uniform. The sharks glide lazily around the tank surrounded by shoals of small fish. We were fascinated by the antics of a tiny bright yellow fish who seemed infused with a supernatural energy and zoomed around the tank as if it was running a relay race all on its own. Apparently he – or she – has been keeping up this breakneck speed since uShaka opened. I think the fish should be given freedom of the City as an honorary “citizen”!

Part of the uShaka experience is the Dolphin Show where you can see Durban’s legendary Gambit in action. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to take this in as the Dolphinarium was being upgraded but when it’s back in action, don’t miss it.

Access to the Dangerous Creatures exhibition is included in the Sea World ticket price of R87 (R57 for children) or Combo ticket (R130 adults/R85 for children). uShaka is open daily from 09h00 to 18h00. More information from uShaka on 031 328 8000. – Caroline Smart

Afterwards, enjoy a tranquil half-hour or so on one of the gondolas, gliding through the waterways of the new Point Waterfront residential development. This is the best way to see the impressive growth of this area. The gondolas are driven by electric motors to add to the peaceful ambience. Tickets R20. Ask for directions at the Information Centre at the entrance to uShaka Marine World.




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