Ehime Man's Labor Of Love Pays Off As 'underwater Circus' Comes To Life

Ehime man's labor of love pays off as 'underwater circus' comes to lifeSome people take up gardening or reading after retiring, while others choose to travel. One man here found his niche by training fish to swim through hoops.
The "magician" is a former company employee, 78-year-old Naoyuki Aoki, who has spent a decade taming and training two black sea bream, a species known for its high alert level when it comes to predators.

Decked out in snorkeling gear, Aoki shows off his "underwater circus" in waters off this coastal city.

His cue for getting the fish to navigate the course is to tap a seashell with a hammer. They swim continuously through five hoops placed at 10-centimeter intervals.

The fish, named Gonta and Taro, are rewarded with shellfish out of Aoki's hand. The fish are 50 cm long and have body scars, making them easily identifiable.

Tetsuya Umino, an associate professor of aquatic biology at Hiroshima University’s Graduate School, was flabbergasted when he saw the performance some years ago.

“I've never heard of anyone successfully training fish used for food and game,” he said.

Umino, who wrote a book on the biology of black sea bream, said there is a consensus among scientists that the fish are hard to tame because of their cautious nature--evidence of their intelligence.

“High levels of alertness mean high degrees of cleverness, which may have helped them learn that if they swim through hoops, they will be rewarded," he said. "Presumably, they see Aoki as their friend."

Aoki started deep-sea fishing and skin diving when he was working for a local television station. He recalled coming across the sea bream he named Gonta during a dive 10 years ago. The fish ate food that he scattered in front of it.

The notion of taming fish came to Aoki after a friend noted it would be quite a feat if he could pull off hand-feeding them. From that point, Aoki repeatedly fed the fish, snorkeling as long as his lungs would allow.

Finally, in 2006, Aoki got Gonta to eat out of his hand. He recalled shouting "I did it!" underwater.

In 2008, Aoki tried to teach Gonta to swim through hoops. The fish quickly learned to clear two hoops, but stopped short of the third--perhaps out of cautiousness.

To get around the problem, Aoki has food visible at the end of the course, and gives the fish their cue by striking the hammer.

Aoki got Gonta to swim through five hoops in 2012, when the Olympic Games were held in London. After that initial victory, he was able to repeat the performance. He uploaded videos online.

Aoki visits the coastal area about 200 times a year, interacting with the two fish for nearly half of the time.