Location: Hersonissos, Heraklion, Crete
It took a 'home-made' sea water fish tank; one octopus and sheer determination for Scot, John McLaren to realise a dream: To build the first aquarium open to the public in Crete. That he has done, against all the odds. The public aquarium is also Greece's third to be established and receives visitors and interest from all over the world. As John says: Aquaworld is quite simply to encourage interest in marine life. Crete is surrounded by the Mediterranean Sea, so what better way than to bring the ocean closer to people. It helps us understand and better respect our marine environment." John had witnessed for himself over the years the hidden natural treasures in the depths of Mediterranean from his many hours of snorkelling and scuba diving around the coasts of Crete. He wants others to share in learning more about nature's beauty under the sea.
John's adventure dates back to 1991 when he arrived in "Crete" from Scotland. An aquarium hobbyist for many years, he wanted a living room type aquarium, albeit a large one for his Hersonissos apartment he was renting. He set about building his own fish tank. In those days John recalls how supplies of specialist glass and tank accessories were expensive and limited. After several diabolical fish tank disasters including a flooded flat, real success came four years later in June 1995 when a combination of fortuitous events, not least an amenable landlord, enabled John to take over an adjoining flat, knock a few walls down and lo and behold a small 'public' aquarium was born with three fish tanks, one rescued Common Octopus (Octopus vulgaris L) and a few fishes.
Being the inimitable Scotsman that he is, John set about multiplying the fish collection by placing a jam jar on the counter and encouraged visitors to make contributions. John was more surprised than anyone that so many people not only visited his little project but also coughed up with donations.
Downplaying how hard those early days were, John says that Aquaworld has since gone from strength to strength each year. It manages to attract a growing band of enthusiasts, especially the children, who come back with their parents to see progress and new exhibits.
"Of course it was a never ending concern to cover all our outgoings," explains John, "yet with the help of advisors such as Dr. Pascal Divanach of the Hellenic Centre for Marine Research and visitor contributions, we managed to keep going. It was Dr Divanach's idea to to keep the fish tanks cool in an air-conditioned environment, something we have been able to do since 2002 with his support and advice."
John's collection of salt water fish is housed now in a number of tanks, the largest being 8,000 litres which is home to small sharks, known as Tope (Galeorhinus galeus L).
Luckily, John also has a garden area for his reptile and outdoor collection, including tortoises and terrapins. This area has become a great fascination for everyone. "Visitors come to see Crete's snakes and lizards thinking they are dangerous when in fact we have no dangerous reptiles in Crete," John tells everyone. Ironically, it is Johns wife, Judith (they first met John in 1999), who lovingly cares for the reptiles: "Having been brought up in Australia where venomous snakes outnumber the non-poisonous ones, it took me sometime to overcome my nervousness, here."
John notes that that Aquaworld is home to many pets animals also which have become unwanted and uncared-for, pets. "That is much better than we go out to catch wildlife for display."
Official recognition has taken a long time to come but Greek National TV - ERT, the Greek National Tourism Organisation and the Ministry of Fisheries & Agriculture have all endorsed Aquaworld. ERT has gone so far as to endorse John's efforts as 'the most significant in Greece in terms of marine ecology'. The official selides.gr web site for Greek schoolchildren has also recognised the contribution of Aquaworld in educating Greek youngsters on the environment.
|Another of John's Projects: A "Petition" to Save the Zakynthos Turtles
An observation by John of the early days: "What happened after opening Aquaworld is the really interesting part. Almost immediately people started bringing me snakes, lizards etc that they had found and very early on I became involved in my first sea-turtle rescue in conjunction with Archelon - the Sea Turtle Protection Society of Greece. Every turtle we have helped to return to the sea has been a real thrill. I have initiated a (controversial, to say the least) petition to try and help the Green Turtles (Chelonia mydas L) of Zakynthos.
A true Scot, John was born in Helensburgh, a Clydeside resort just north of Glasgow. That in itself is a fascinating tale as John recalls: I should have been born in Prestwick, Ayrshire, but my father, a marine engineer officer with BP, was docking in Finnart. My mother went to meet him -- and let us just say, I arrived a little early on the scene! A surprise arrival at birth, John continues to surprise. Apart from the obvious full-time work at the aquarium, which includes helping with University research programmes such as investigating the habitat of the Spiny Lobster (Family Palinuridae: Palinuris vulgaris L). John also keeps his hand in by teaching English at proficiency level for a few hours each week. He has taken on the task of running The (Gouves) Khronicles website, as well as contributing the odd article. Then there is the fact he has been working on two Australia degrees for 27 months. He graduated in 2007 with two BA's, one from Griffith University in Queensland and another from Curtin University in Western Australia. Most of this work was done sitting at his computer in Crete and it was all made possible by "Open Learning Australia". If that wasn't enough, he is taking on a new venture with Greek partners - to export and retail Thrapsano - made pots in Australia. This is taking John to pastures new, and his wife's homeland.
Aquaworld gives the creatures the best possible living conditions,
Photo © John McLaren
John who once described himself as "owner", "builder", "guide", "dreamer" and "general dogsbody" at Aquaworld, recounts more tales of life at the Hersonissos aquarium.