The Oceanographic: Something Fishy in the city of Valencia

British Etymologist Unimpressed by Europe’s largest Oceanographic Park

My arrival at Europe’s largest Oceanographic park was not an outstanding success. In fact I seemed to cause a bit of a commotion. Perhaps it was something to do with the fact that I took along my rods and tackle just on the off chance. Or maybe it was because I was wearing a really snazzy suit.

So maybe they took a look at the suit and thought: “Shark!” After all it was originally a German word, “schurke” meaning greedy parasite, and referring to the kind of people who prey on sailors in harbour, and was applied by sailors later on to the sea creature on noting its voracious ability to do to men overboard what others did on land: to strip them to the bone!

The Oceanographic Park in Valencia is apparently the largest in Europe, a message that hasn’t got through to Lisbon, where they are still claiming that theirs is.


For all you numerologists, it has 9 towers, covering an area of 80,000 square metres above ground, and 30,000 square metres below. 101 pumps and 25 kilometres of pipeline control the 42 million litres of salt water that are filtered into the park from nearby Malvarrosa Beach. There are 45,000 animals of 500 different species, looked after and only occasionally eaten by over 300 staff.

Certainly the exhibits which pulled the biggest crowds were the frogmen, bravely feeding the sharks on the wrong side of the glass, but who spend most of their time furiously scrubbing clean the plastic coral. I always think that ‘frogman’ is a singularly inappropriate name for this species, as they neither croak, leap, nor speak French; which is a shame, for the noble tongue of Voltaire is undoubtedly at its finest when spoken underwater.

Notably absent was underwater photographer Henry Barce, who in 1968 lost a leg to a shark while pursuing his professional obligations. He later lost the artificial replacement to a shark too, although it’s not clear if it was the same one. Some people just can’t take a hint.

The human species suffers approximately 100 shark attacks per year, half of which result in death. In most cases, the aforementioned death refers to humans, not sharks, although sharks also die if they stop swimming, which is why they don’t. Until they die that is. Maybe that’s why they call it ‘the lifecycle’.

It’s a well known fact that sharks are actually notorious cowards and that confronted with a swimmer who gives them a good, sharp knock on the snout they will instantly flee the scene and sulk for weeks, often pining to death in the process.

After a bit of research, I have concluded that there’s some pretty impressive stuff under the waves, and I will think twice before tossing another empty beer can off the fo’c’sle. (An impressive word that isn’t, in fact, at all rude).

The Blue Whale, for example, can weigh up to 140 tons, and has a tongue which is as heavy as a small elephant (consequently children should be discouraged from keeping them as pets, although I believe baby elephants are very cuddly and rarely grow any larger; or at least that’s what the pet shop salesman assured me when I bought one for the kids recently, and they’re certainly having a whale of a time with him).

The Giant Clam can live for up to 200 years, making it the world record holder in longevity. It’s also responsible for the name of that delightful apparatus that traffic wardens are given to putting on the wheels of my Rolls just because I park in handicap zones. I mean, if driving with a hangover isn’t a handicap, then I don’t know what is!

Some fish can live at altitudes of up to 4,900 metres, although their survival can be seriously compromised if there is no water to be found at that height at the same time.

Alligators can have up to 50 sets of teeth. No wonder they have felt no desire to evolve over all these years. Talk about teething problems!

African Lung fish survive drought by burying themselves in mud and consuming their own muscle until conditions improve.

The male Angler fish locks onto the female and stays there forever, which must make it very difficult to hide that telltale pair of perfumed undies left carelessly at the bottom of the briefcase.

The Plaice is the only known hibernating fish. It must have heard that classic song from West Side Story: “Somewhere”. Get it? Oh, come on, you can’t expect me to do all the work: “there’s a plaice for us…..”

The name ‘Kipper’ comes from Dutch and means “fish that has just spawned, and is too tough to eat without smoking”; more or less. When it’s been smoked 5 times it’s called a red herring, and was used by escaped convicts in the 17th century to distract the dogs that were hunting them down; hence the expression. Today’s red herrings are also known as “weapons of mass destruction”.

Speaking of rape and pillage, it’s believed that the movement of herring shoals away from the Baltic may have caused the Vikings to give up fishing and opt for exploration, conquest and a glorious sword-in-hand death.

The Box Jellyfish also makes a loveable pet; its neuro-toxic venom can kill in less than 10 minutes. There is no known antidote fast enough to help. In the last 25 years these creatures have killed at least 60 Australians. Perhaps we should send our excess criminals there, and let them know what it means to live in permanent danger. In fact, introducing a few to the Med might help reduce the overcrowding on our beaches a bit.

The Middle English word “shrimpe” meant puny person, and like the shark, the animal was named after its human counterpart, and not vice-versa.

And on the subject of seafood, the expression “the world is my oyster” has always puzzled me. Comparing the world to something resembling what you often find on a handkerchief when you’ve got a heavy cold, but which some people prefer to see wriggling before they’ll put it in their mouth with only a dash of lemon to take away the taste, is almost as absurd as the expression “as pissed as a newt”, a colloquialism which was clearly plucked from the mist by someone who could see pink ones paddling across the ceiling carrying blue umbrellas.

The female Seahorse deposits its eggs in the male abdomen, and he carries them until they are hatched. This is one species that will hopefully become extinct as soon as possible so as not to set unnatural precedents.

The star attraction at the Oceanographic is inevitably the dolphin show. Dolphins are fascinating beasts that have apparently been trained to recognise and react to as many as 25 different words, although they still make very inadequate chess partners.

So anyway, back to the main point of all this and all cultural visits; the restaurant. Its attraction is that the walls consist of tanks with circling fish, all swimming in the same direction, except for the occasional Jonathan Livingston Sardine who insists on swimming against the tide. It can be a little eerie trying to concentrate on the menu with a constant parade of the live version all watching you and screaming loudly: “Not me! Not me!” Just as well they scream in French. As they should; the restaurant does after all serve ‘nouveau cuisine’, which for those of you who don’t speak French (and I believe there are one or two who survived that indignity at school) means “nine kitchens”.

And that, as the French swimmer said when he saw the shark approaching, is “le fin”.


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