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Issue Date: January 2014 Issue

Buried Treasure

Jason Brill

Need a reason to rediscover the Greater Cleveland Aquarium? Captain Neo, a 250-year-old oar boat captain and official aquarium tour guide, spouts seaworthy facts with a thick Irish-Scottish accent.


As landlubbers cruise through the aquarium's first gallery, Ohio Lakes and Rivers, the captain offers a warning about one of the fishes. "I tell all the guests, you have to pronounce this correctly," he says. "That's a black crappie [pronounced kra-pe]. If you say it the other way, I will kick you out of my aquarium. In here too, we have a one-eyed fish. We are the only aquarium in Cleveland with a one-eyed fish."


Toby, a giant gourami in the Freshwater Asia exhibit, is the only fish in the aquarium with a first name, says Captain Neo. "He will come up and say 'Hi' to you," he says. "He has an extra organ inside his body. It's called a labyrinth organ. When he's not getting enough oxygen from the water, he'll come up and take a breath."


The captain has a nemesis in a tank near the Coastal gallery's touch pool. "I thought he wasn't going to be here today!" he exclaims. "This puffer fish is a fan-favorite. But I have yet to see him puff up. I think it's me, personally. He's puffed up four or five times. I saw a photographic image of it once. I don't like him that much. A lot of people think he's more adorable than I am."


During the cold winter months, the aquarium's African Spur Thigh Tortoise exhibit doubles to 14 animals, each of which can weigh as much as 200 pounds. "They come from a rescue facility in the Canton area called Noah's Lost Ark," says Captain Neo, as two tortoises come face-to-face. "Look at that. They're kissing. That's adorable."


The aquarium has public feedings six days a week for the stingrays in the touch pool. Captain Neo often joins in on the fun, chopping an inch-thick piece of herring in the kitchen beforehand, then holding it for the rays. "It feels a little bit like your cat licking you underwater," he says. "If you submersed your cat and let it lick you."

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