Science: Up above the sharks glide by : This week Sir David Attenborough will tell the British Association for the Advancement of Science, of which he is president, that opening more aquariums to show sea animals to the public would enrich life on earth

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The Independent Online
I EXPECTED letters of protest. A killer whale, surging up a beach, grabbing a sea-lion pup by the neck and thrashing it from side to side, is, after all, an alarming sight. It becomes horrifying when the whale swims back out to sea and toys with the still-living pup, hurling it into the air with a twist of its head and batting it with a clout of its tail. Protest letters arrived. Some said we were guilty of sensationalism. A whale enthusiast told me that such scenes should not be shown as they gave whales a bad name. It was wrong, apparently, even to call the animal a killer whale; I should have used its Latin name, orca.

So why did we show those scenes in Trials of Life on BBC 2? The programme was one of a series. Others had dealt with pair-bonding and parental care. This one was about hunting. To have eliminated violence from it and suggest, as some natural history documentaries have done, that hunted animals die a swift and largely painless death would be to misrepresent the natural world. Hunting is a bloody, violent business, but one that all who wish to take a responsible view of the natural world must come to terms with. The protesters should see what we cut out.

Today, with the widespread anxiety about the pollution and destruction of the natural world, we are all being asked to support the work and policies of conservation, and we should have some view on the validity of what we are doing. Unhappily, at the same time we are becoming increasingly urbanised and divorced from the wilderness. Television is one way in which some link can be maintained and it has a responsibility not to turn nature into a fairy story. Natural history museums can also help. If you see the teeth of a killer whale, you obtain a vivid and accurate idea of the animal's formidable character.

From that point of view, I was disappointed in the Natural History Museum's new ecology gallery, all video-walls, winking lights, working models and plastic trees. You have to search to find a bit of real fur or feather. The newer gallery on the other side of the main hall displaying dinosaurs is much better. As a boy I remember staring at a dinosaur skeleton, enthralled by the notion that these were the bones of a monster that had prowled the Earth a hundred million years ago, only to discover from a small label tucked in a corner that this one was just plaster. There are casts and models in the new show but lots of the real thing, too, and very exciting it is.

Of course, you can't do better than the living animal itself. You can still see exotic species in the zoo, a few miles away, but not, it seems, for much longer. The zoo may close, and for the first time in 167 years Regent's Park will be without a giraffe. Television is blamed to some degree for the falling gate money. Certainly, action-packed natural history documentaries must have made people dissatisfied with the sight of an animal slumbering - or moping - in the corner of a bleak enclosure. But it has also proved people are interested not only in the furries, the cuddlies and the big spectacular animals; they are just as fascinated by the sight of parasol ants scissoring leaves and carrying them off to their nests, of spiders constructing elaborate webs, and termites building towers 20 feet high from mud pellets.

These days, zoos can show all those things in a most spectacular fashion if they wish to. Most thrilling of all, they can exhibit the underwater world. Today in Tokyo and Monterey, Boston and Sydney, there are spectacular aquaria with tanks 30 feet deep. You can watch sea otters dive to gather clams from the bottom, sea anemones the size of hearth rugs with clown fish lounging among their poisoned tentacles, and coral fish courting. From under water you can see a wave surge in over a reef of living coral and walk along transparent tunnels with sharks swimming a foot from your head. Aquaria such as these are major attractions; the one in New Orleans was visited by two million people in its first year.

So why don't we have such marvels in Britain? One group is campaigning to be allowed to build an aquarium in Regent's Park Zoo and so restore its flagging fortunes. The Marine Biological Association in Plymouth is trying to raise funds to build a National Marine Aquarium. I hope one or the other, or both, succeed.

A knowledge and an interest in the natural world is an essential part of our education. This week the British Association for the Advancement of Science is holding its annual festival in Southampton and one discussion will be devoted to the use of aquaria as educational tools. I have no doubt which way the debate will go.

Modern aquaria are, of course, more than just educational, however. The queues to visit those in Boston and New Orleans prove people yearn to fill the gap left in their experience when they become distanced from the natural world. Gazing at such enthralling underwater spectacles is a delight and an enrichment. It is time such queues started to form here.