Fishy tales of V&A aquarium director’s extraordinary life

  • Review: David Bristow

Crazy: Adventures of a marine biologist, by Patrick Garratt (New Voices, Cape Town)

There’s a picture in this book of three guys on a beach somewhere, with a caption telling us they are “research fishing” – if ever there was an oxymoron.

But then, as the author advises us on the back cover, to “find your passion, ignore the doomsayers, follow your dream and know your purpose”.

If you’ve ever met Patrick Garratt, it’s hard to believe such a mild-mannered and considerate man could have led such a crazy life.

Garratt, the man behind the planning, opening and running of Cape Town’s Two Oceans Aquarium, found his life’s passion in fishing, in the broadest sense of that word, when he was still a pre-teen.

Although he grew up and was schooled in Johannesburg, family holidays were spent on the KwaZulu-Natal south coast. It was there the lad learned from the canny locals (including a deaf Zulu man) the finer crafts and dark arts of throwing a line.

One of the chapters is titled “Six Angels”, which is the human equivalent of a cat’s nine lives. Garratt certainly used his up. Not once but twice he found himself out in the deep blue sea aboard a sinking boat, adrift for longer than anyone should have to endure.

Then there’s the episode of finding himself staring into the barrel of a .38 – that relationship did not end well. I think the lesson here is, don’t leave a loaded gun in your home when you find you’ve shacked up with a crazy person.

Garratt knew from an early age what he wanted to be, but he had to fight long and hard to earn his degree in marine biology. From there he went to work for the Oceanographic Research Institute on Durban’s Foreshore, and later he was headhunted to become the founding curator and later director of Cape Town’s aquarium.

Each of those episodes was a long and extremely exciting affair, with adventures all around the South African coastline, to Mozambique and its islands, the Aldabras archipelago, Bassas da India – not least of which was discovering a treasure trove of pieces of silver on a shallow reef there, every ocean lover’s dream.

Perhaps some of the best adventures are set in Ramsgate when, just after graduating, he informed his new wife that he (and by proxy they) would be going commercial ski-boat fishing on the KwaZulu-Natal South Coast. Commercial fishing is a tough life and none more so when running your own ski-boat from a notoriously storm-wracked bay. But that was where he earned his real piscine qualifications and the respect of his peers for ever after.

I loaned my first copy to a friend, also an ocean lover, and he devoured it like a banquet table laden with fish-paste on toast. There is lots of fish and fishing, but also so much more in the book – including the background to the opening and running of the Two Oceans Aquarium. However, it is really all the markers of his personal life that lift this book into the realm of a really captivating read.

Many of us might remember the saga of Maxine the mature female ragged-tooth shark that was the aquarium’s VIP, and how she was released with much media fanfare and a tracking device that was also the mark of a scientific breakthrough in the tracking of large marine specimens. But the aquarium was not without its problems and controversies, including a cracked huge glass panel in the main viewing tank, and issues around capturing and caging wild animals.

For Garratt it was all in a day’s work: imagine a life that, every day you wake up, you go fishing. The book, like the author’s life, is full of passion and more than just a little bit crazy.

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