By Katy Gill
Meet the REEL-y impressive fish that show any-FIN is possible after learning to swim through hoops and being able to recognize colours and shapes through obedience training.
Michelle Benedict and Megumi Stahel, from the Dophin Quest Oahu in Hawaii, spend up to 20 hours a week teaching tricks to the sea creatures, in their multispecies training programme.
They have taught over 15 species and more than 50 individual fish some of the impressive cognitive games that can take between a few sessions and a few months to master.
These include recognising specific coloured or shaped bricks to pick them out from a line-up, swimming through hoops, finding a bullseye and more.
Each successful completion is rewarded with food relative to their species – with puffer fish receiving a shrimp and surgeon fishing getting algae.
They hope that visitors are ‘amazed’ by the fish performing these tricks and that it will encourage people to become better stewards for the environment.
Michelle, an Aquarist, said: “From the animal perspective, these training opportunities provide enrichment. They are fun games or puzzles that the fish learn to solve.
“These sessions are also very enriching for our guests, many of whom have never even imagined that fish can learn such complex behaviors.
“These experiences are often as memorable to guests as our dolphin interactive programs.
“The ultimate goal is to provide novel opportunities to share with the public how incredible these animals are, so that people are inspired to protect them in the wild.
“We want our guests to leave with a renewed connection to marine life, our ocean and preserving both.
“The most common response is ‘Wow! I didn’t know you could train a fish!’ Guests are amazed, even by the relationship the trainers have with the fish, how trusting they are.”
Their programme has been running for 12 years with 25 individuals currently having maintained behaviours.
In video footage captured by the team some of the games are showed.
Michele explains how some of the tricks work.
She said: “Fish pick up on very subtle cues. In the ocean this skill is very important to protect them from predation or other threats.
“The puffer fish uses the black circle ring for a few things. It lets him know that we are asking for attention to engage in training. When food is received it is done here.
“The tap of the hoop on the water lets Manja know that he’s performed the behavior correctly and to return for reinforcement.
“When we toss multiple hoops with different shapes and colored tape, we are asking Manja to find the correct one, the circle.
“Rico, the yellowfin surgeonfish – the big blue fish – is simply being asked to swim through the multicolored hoops. The only color whose position matters is the yellow with black bars.”
A common misconception is that fish cannot see colour, but with more than 27,000 species, there are varying levels of vision.
Michelle said: “Some fish are completely blind and others live in pitch black environments where color would be indistinguishable.
“Fish can see color, some can see UV, but it can vary by species.”
Over time, they claim the fish form bonds with individuals much like a ‘family.’
The trainers are even able to recognize differences within the behavior of the fishes.
Michelle said: “The fish react differently to different trainers based upon the relationship the trainer has with them.
“The longer the relationship history the better the response from the fish. For myself, I have a close bond to the fish.
“I love and care for them like family. I know every individual and their differing personalities.”
Dolphin Quest was created three decades ago with the hope of creating a place for people to make deep, lasting connections with dolphins and other marine species.
In addition to the work within the tourist attraction, they have contributed over $4.1m to marine mammal conservation, education and scientific study.
They hope their work will encourage others to think differently about the fish and ocean ecosystem.
Michelle said: “Fish are amazing animals and sometimes overlooked.
“The more we connect people on a deeper level with different animal species, the more we can inspire people to become better stewards of our shared ocean environment.”