by Erin Kirkland – Dr. Ian Walker knows his place at the Bermuda Aquarium, Museum, and Zoo; and right now, it’s in the tortoise pen, scratching the outstretched necks of Sally and Crooked Nose. The two, aged 50 and 100, respectively, had lumbered over as soon as they heard Walker’s voice carry across the shaded courtyard near their enclosure.
We’re on a tour of the facility, transitioning from sea to land and natural history under the guidance of Dr. Walker, who besides owning the title of “chief reptile scratcher,” also happens to be principal curator and head veterinarian of Bermuda’s only zoo and aquarium.
Unique in that it is owned by the Bermuda government, operating under the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, the Bermuda Aquarium, Museum, and Zoo (or BAMZ) is located in the Flatts village area of Bermuda. One of the world’s oldest aquariums (founded in 1926), the facility is also quite small, encompassing only seven acres that manage to nonetheless provide a wealth of knowledge about the area’s unique species of flora and fauna.Supported by a deep set of partnerships that run the gamut of public, private, and community efforts, BAMZ is fast-becoming one of the hot tickets for teaching both residents and visitors the value of conservation, stewardship, and marine life education.
Bermuda is a British overseas territory technically made up of more than 180 islands and islets that form a fishhook-shaped landmass 22 miles long and about a mile across in the North Atlantic Ocean. Rocky, narrow, and full of navigational surprises, Bermuda has intrigued visitors ever since it was first discovered in the 1500’s by Spanish navigator Jean de Bermudez, from which the territory gets its name.
It’s a destination and home of multiple nationalities, including the British who crashed a ship called the Sea Venture against the craggy reefs in 1609 (and set the stage for more than 500 wrecks thereafter). Settling in Bermuda, the British firmly established themselves on the island, finding Bermuda to be a great midpoint for ship-driven commerce between Canada and the Caribbean.
Hundreds of years later, Bermuda is known for silky-soft sand, brilliant blue water, and an abundance of opportunities to look beyond resort beaches and cruise ship docks, and on to the rich environments of the island’s quieter, more retrospective natural areas.
In fact, Bermuda’s small geographic map point boasts 360 species of birds, and nearly 8,000 species of flora and fauna; not bad for a chain of reef-y islands more than 600 miles away from the nearest mainland, North Carolina in the United States.
More Than a Zoo
Dr. Walker leads our group around the property: the aquarium’s 140-gallon North Rock exhibit where live corals and a bunch of big fish – predatory, Walker calls them – swoop about in the clear water of their tank. More than 200 species of fish and delicate marine invertebrates reside at the aquarium, Walker says, sweeping an arm around the compact space, and it gives visitors a unique look at Bermuda’s shallow coastal waters, coral reefs, and deepwater ocean environments in one place.
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We explore the Bermuda zoo’s “free-flight” enclosures, in which animals and birds co-exist together in a surprisingly peaceful way. As if to demonstrate for our benefit, a ring-tailed lemur sneaks our direction to accept a grape from Walker while a pat of flamingos placidly mill about a pond nearby.Intersecting the aquarium and zoo is a natural history museum that neatly ties together Bermuda’s watery surroundings to its stony surface area; a nice idea that led me to wonder why more facilities don’t approach zoological education in this manner.
“Our mission is to inspire an appreciation and care of all island environments,” Walker said later in an email, long after my visit to this corner of paradise had ended. “All of our exhibits tell stories of Bermuda or other islands around the world, including Madagascar, the Caribbean, and Australasia. We want our visitors to know how important and fragile (they are), especially in light of the ease of international travel and the movement of invasive species.”
That concern for invasion by organisms not native to the islands is an ever-present one and has led to a robust education program to provide young stewards of Bermuda an understanding of how they play a valuable role in the area’s future.
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“We provide free educational opportunities for all of Bermuda school children – some 8,600 experiences a year currently,” says Walker. It may be a trip to the facility, classes behind the scenes, or field trips to various habitats utilizing the organization’s “floating classroom” aboard the boat R/V Endurance that provides access to reefs of nearby Harrington Sound and the jewel of the Bermuda Zoological Society, Trunk Island.
A Slice of Natural Paradise
Our transportation to Trunk Island comes in the form of the Endurance, a research vessel that chugs to a dock on the backside of the zoo. A critical element of the Bermuda Zoological Society’s ongoing efforts for education and outreach, the Endurance regularly transports thousands of eager island-goers for field trips, nature camps, work parties, and special events on the 2.4 acres of land owned by the organization.
The island is a tapestry of diverse environments ranging from sandy to sea grass to an ancient palmetto forest and bio-erosional notches unique to Harrington Sound’s limestone rocks. It’s quiet out there, allowing for us to notice the brush of wind in palm fronds and the buzzing of bees from nearby hives. A pink cottage sits atop a green lawn and serves as the eco-classroom for visitors who make the eight-minute trip from the zoo.
Walker outlined a series of ongoing projects for this small haven: removal of invasive plants, improving the trails, and establishing a modest rental program for the building that will require patrons to remember and support the protective, conservation-driven mission of the property.“It’s a magical place for kids to learn and grow,” he said, “and our educational officer has developed a full curriculum of modules built into the Bermuda school system. This is a place that belongs to the entire Bermuda community.”
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Community. Stewardship. Preservation. Action words that define one of the most important places along these 22 miles of narrow roadways and colorful buildings. It’s a small world at the Bermuda Aquarium, Museum, and Zoo, but mighty is the mission.
Bermuda Aquarium, Museum, and Zoo: If you go
Include the BAMZ in your Bermuda island exploration by planning with the Bermuda Tourism Authority.
The Bermuda Aquarium, Museum, and Zoo is easily-found via Bermuda’s taxi or public transportation system. Taking the bus is an excellent way to introduce youngsters to the local culture of Bermuda’s different neighborhoods, and is far cheaper than calling a cab. A bus pass can be purchased for the duration of your Bermuda stay.
Dr. Walker advises families to take advantage of the many programs and presentations throughout the year, including self-guided scavenger hunts. Find all information, including admission and a special event calendar on the Bermuda Aquarium, Museum, and Zoo’s website.
Looking to dive deeper into the ecosystems and marine life around Bermuda? The BAMZ also offers regular excursions that feature whale-watching, family cruises to Trunk Island, or behind-the-scenes tours. Visit the Island Tour Centre for booking information.
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Erin Kirkland is editor of Outdoor Families Magazine and a freelance travel journalist and guidebook author. She lives in Anchorage, Alaska, where she publishes the website AKontheGO.com.