Look Behind the Scenes at Life Inside Italy’s Largest Aquarium

Caring for 12,000 animals is an enormous task, but at the Aquarium of Genoa, it’s all in a day's work.

Photograph by Gianmarco maraviglia
Read Caption
A staffer at the Aquarium of Genoa cleans the glass of the reptile enclosure after hours. The glass must be cleaned multiple times a week to prevent algal and bacterial blooms. Such blooms make it difficult for visitors to see through the glass, and they pose a health risk to the animals inside.
Photograph by Gianmarco maraviglia

Every morning, just as the sun rises over the adjacent port, 40 men and women in matching blue collared t-shirts walk through the doors of Italy’s world famous Aquarium of Genoa. They are always the first to arrive and often the last to leave because, for this troupe of veterinarians, aquarists, animal trainers, and marine biologists, work doesn’t always end when business hours are over.

The aquarium, which is the largest in Italy and among the largest in Europe, sits atop a wharf on the edge of the city of Genoa. The aging attraction, built in 1992, is home to just over 12,000 animal specimens from 600 different species. This diverse collection of dolphins, penguins, manatees, jellyfish, seals, sharks, and other creatures is spread across 70 tanks and enclosures, each representing a different exotic ecosystem.

Keeping all of these animals happy and healthy takes a highly skilled team of animal experts working from sunrise to sunset 365 days a year.

The amount of work that goes into making an animal from the South Pole feel at home in the middle of the Mediterranean is immense, and it’s the subject of photojournalist Gianmarco Maraviglia’s latest photo series, "Behind The Glass.”

Behind The Glass

To create the series Maraviglia spent the past year visiting European zoos and aquariums to capture images of artificial environments and the people who maintain them.

“I wanted to do something with animals,” says Maraviglia. “I’d always worked with people, people from around the world with difficult and dramatic stories. So, for the first time in my life, I decided to do something completely different.”

The idea behind his newest project, Maraviglia says, is to document the many ways in which humans try to create seemingly natural environments for their favorite captive creatures. For "Behind the Glass,” Maraviglia says he’s focused on photographing “places built for animals that may never see their natural environment.”

During his quest to capture photos for this series, Maraviglia felt an obligation to take his camera behind the scenes at the largest aquarium in his home country of Italy.

Happy Feet

The scenes of tank washing and animal feeding that played out in front of Maraviglia’s camera in Genoa were in no way unique to this aquarium. To meet the animal welfare standards held by the European Association of Zoos and Aquariums, member aquariums such as the Aquarium of Genoa carefully monitor the physical and mental health of animals, as well as the environmental conditions inside enclosures.

Everything from the dissolved calcium content of the water to the physical health of their penguins is checked daily. These seemingly mundane tasks are essential to maintaining the wellbeing of captive animals, but few visitors are aware they’re happening. Claudia Gili, the aquarium’s senior veterinarian, says the public rarely gets to see this in action.

“[Visitors don’t see] the proper husbandry techniques that guarantee physical health and provide behavioral enrichments,” said Gili in an email. “Techniques have changed enormously over the years, as have the materials utilized.”

Recent advancements in animal husbandry emphasize the importance of providing captive animals with stimulating environments where they can do the same things that they would in the wild, Gili says.

“In general the most important thing is to make sure that the exhibit shows the key features represented in a particular environment and allows the animals to thrive in it for their entire lifespan,” she says.

See What It Takes to Bring Exotic Fish From the Sea to Aquarium Tanks High demand has exotic fish exporters capturing the vast majority of the fish from their natural habitats.

One example of this eco-inspired design can be seen in the Magellanic penguin enclosure. The exhibit was designed to mimic the rocky coastlines of South America, and pebbles are put out to allow for nest building. That type of design is also evident in the coral reef exhibit, where the majority of the reef is made of living corals rather than artificial recreations.

Creature Comforts

Aquariums like the one in Genoa try hard to create exhibits that serve the needs of visitors and inhabitants alike, but in some cases the two are mutually exclusive. (Read: “Tiger’s Death Raises Question: What Makes a Good Zoo?”) Take the Aquarium of Genoa’s dolphin exhibit; its modest size and barren interior makes it easy for visitors to view the bottlenose dolphins within, but it also makes the enclosure a far cry from the dolphins’ open ocean habitat.

Like many aquariums, the Aquarium of Genoa has been criticized by animal rights groups for keeping bottlenose dolphins in captivity, which critics believe is inhumane due to the animal’s superior intelligence and nomadic nature. (Watch: “Dolphins: Even Smarter Than You Thought.”)

View Images

Riccardo Cenci emerges from the warm waters of one the aquarium’s tropical reef exhibits. The responsibilities of an aquarist aren’t limited to feeding and training; they’re involved in everything from habitat design to daily cleanings.

The aquarium’s controversial decision to keep dolphins isn’t solely motivated by profit. Having dolphins so close at hand allows scientists to study their biology, physiology, and ethology in unprecedented detail, according to Gili.

The dolphins at the Aquarium of Genoa have aided scientists studying dolphin behavior, sleep, communication, and reproduction. The information gathered through these studies is openly shared with other zoos and aquariums.

“[We] exchange information about advancements in animal husbandry with colleagues and collectively manage the population of animals with all other partner institutions in a sustainable way,” says Gili.