Kitty Chan Hau-yi is studying to be a primary school maths teacher at the Hong Kong Institute of Education, but lately she’s been getting a different sort of education - in spider crabs.
Chan is part of the Ocean Park x ChinaChem Volunteer Programme, a group of 16 students from the HKIE and eight retirees. The scheme which runs from February to April, requires them to work at the theme park, promoting animal conservation to tourists from all over the world.
The student volunteers are assigned to sea lions, walruses, earless seals and spider crabs at Grand Aquarium and North Pole Encounter.
Before starting the job, the group took a two day crash-course in cool animal facts, so they’d know what to say when tourists pointed at the spider crabs, asking: “Are they edible? Are they yummy?”
“There was one time a foreign tourist even asked whether we sell them here,” Cherry Siu Cheuk-yan, a HKIE student volunteer, told Young Post.
“I’m really glad they raise that kind of question,” says Chan. She sees it as a good way to bring up the idea of sustainable seafood, so she starts a game called “What would you want to eat tonight?”
Chan asks the visitors to pick one of the following dishes for dinner: local squid, South African abalone, or Australian lobster. Referring to the WWF’s seafood guide, Chan tells tourists Australian lobster is the only acceptable choice, and explains local squid would be a bad option, because it is usually caught by “bottom trawling”, where fishing boats drag huge nets that can sometimes capture more squid than they should — along with other species, too.
The volunteers have come a long way since their first day of work. “To be frank, I just stood there,” Chan says. “I had no clue how to get the tourists’ attention, and I certainly wasn’t used to speaking ‘into the air’.”
To attract visitors who were interested in learning more about the species, the students were taught to call out information, whether or not people were listening. Chan felt uncomfortable on her first day - “I couldn’t bring myself to do it.” - but she has since outgrown her awkwardness, and learned to listen to tourists’ chit-chat and find the right moment to break in. “Every minute of the volunteer work tests my courage: am I brave enough to walk up to strangers and talk to them?” Chan said. But she appreciates the challenge, and knows it will become useful in her future career as a teacher.
Chan notices that children always like to ask how the animals eat. “When I was an ordinary tourist, I’d be wowed by the animals’ cuteness, and move on to the rides,” Chan said. “But now that I have the chance to stand here for a couple of hours, I actually get to see how they eat.” And she is amazed. The way spider crabs eat shrimps is a lot like squirrels: “They use two ‘hands’ to bring the food to their mouths, and even know to peel the shells!”
And Chan shares her discovery with the next batch of tourists, explaining: “Like us, these crabs only enjoy the tasty meat of the shrimps; they are not dumb enough to swallow the shells.”
Once they break the ice, volunteers get all sorts of questions from the tourists, from: “Why does [the spider crab] have one leg longer than the other?” to “How do starfish reproduce?”
“I like tourists with a lot of questions,” said Siu. “Their enthusiasm and curiosity inspire me to offer all that I know."