Working at the Touch Pool

Touch Pool ruminations

I spend one Sunday afternoon a month (the third Sunday – come and say hi – you can catch the shark feeding at 1500 while you’re there, and it might even coincide with my tea break!) at the Two Oceans Aquarium, volunteering at the Touch Pool or the microscope. It’s my job to interpret the exhibits to visitors, introducing them to the joys of marine life. My entire afternoon is documented on because the camera is located just opposite the Touch Pool.

Working at the Touch Pool
Working at the Touch Pool - sore back at the end of the day!

The Touch Pool is nothing special to look at. It’s a low concrete pool with a rim wide enough for little people to sit on. On any given day it contains icy cold water that is being constantly replaced by the aquarium’s filtration system, several sea anemones, a couple of hermit crabs, some whelks, lots of different kinds of seaweed and sea sponges, some starfish, several abalone shells, and a sea urchin or two.

Working at the Touch Pool
Working at the Touch Pool

As a volunteer at the Touch Pool, I explain simple facts about the sea life to visitors. I also guide them regarding how to interact with the exhibit – no squeezing or pulling, do not take the anemones, crabs, urchins and starfish out of the water, and the like. We also tell the visitors where on their bodies to touch the creatures – most importantly, not to stick their fingers into the sea anemones’ mouths!

Working at the Touch Pool
Looking for the hermit crab

The point of the Touch Pool is to touch. For really small children, it’s just about the different textures – toddlers love the slimy, knobbly and smooth seaweed and the rough sea sponges. Older children also love the seaweed too, but their chief interest is in the starfish and sea anemones. The experience of touching a starfish – gently, just under the surface of the water – is transformative.


The things that fascinate me about the Touch Pool are these:

  • Children will run towards the Touch Pool, past exhibits showing large, colourful, exotic fish, shouting “I want to touch the starfish”. This experience means more to many of them than the chance to see marine life that they’d NEVER see ordinarily, even large impressive creatures like sharks and rays.
  • Many adults have never interacted with marine life at all. It’s very special to help a grown up in their twenties or thirties feel the side of a sea anemone for the first time, or run their finger over the rough skin of a starfish. The adults are often more reluctant and fearful than the children.

Aquariums around the world have Touch Pool facilities. The animals are rotated in and out so that they have time to recover – it is unquestionably stressful for a starfish to be groped repeatedly by chubby little hands. But the curators have determined that the virtues of this kind of exhibit are outweighed by the risks to the animals.

As a diver, I am well aware of the debate surrounding touching of the sea creatures we encounter. I am of the view that interacting by touch with marine life is not totally taboo, and when I see the effect of giving this opportunity to small children and others – most if not all of them not scuba divers – I am convinced that there is a place for this kind of interaction in our experience of the sea.

Exhausted at 6pm
Exhausted at 5.30pm

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Lapsed mathematician, creator of order, formulator of hypotheses. Lover of the ocean, being outdoors, the bush, reading, photography, travelling (especially in Africa) and road trips.

2 thoughts on “Touch Pool ruminations”

  1. We have just come back from a visit to the aquarium. Morris & Milo didn’t want to leave the Touch Pool. Milo was only allowed to squeeze an inert sponge. Can’t let him near anything living just yet.

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