When John McLaren decided to move in Crete about 20 years ago, he had no idea that he would be the one to give a new perspective to the locals as regards aqua life. John had always had a passion for aquariums, but the locals had probably never heard of this word. This is how a wonderful adventure started...
"I arrived to live on Crete in 1991. I did a lot of snorkeling and scuba diving and was delighted by what I saw in the crystal clear waters around the island. Keeping aquariums had been a hobby of mine for many years, so I decided to build one for my apartment in Koutouloufari, Heraklion Crete, to keep some of the smaller fish and other sea life", says John.
"That winter, I caught a small octopus on Hersonissos beach and I kept it for a few weeks. I was absolutely fascinated and so were all the visitors to my home. This was when the idea of building an aquarium, which would be open to the public, first came to me.
I then spent months looking at every empty building or piece of land around Hersonissos for somewhere to build it, but I had little money and people generally thought that an aquarium was not a good business idea- People pay to eat fish, not to look at them!
By the winter of 1994, I had moved into Hersonissos itself and the man renting the apartment in front of mine left to return to Athens. I looked at the idea of joining the two apartments together to see if it would be possible to build an aquarium in what had been my home. The answer was yes and that is how Aquaworld came to be where it is today. It opened its doors for the first time in June 1995."
Where do you find the fish and reptiles that you host?
At first, my idea was only to show local sea life, and we still do that. All our salt water tanks contain animals which are found right here and I still get most of them from local fishermen, some of whom have been helping me since the very first year.
We now also have two freshwater tanks, one with an alligator gar (North America) which came to us from the Sensatory hotel last year because it grew too big for their aquarium in their restaurant, and it ate all the other fish in it! The other has two axolotls from Mexico which belonged to a local person whose home got far too warm for them in the summer.
In 1995, we got involved with our first sea turtle rescues and began to work together with Archelon, the Sea Turtle Protection Society of Greece. Because they got to know me and to trust my motives for building and running Aquaworld, when they had the problem of what to do with a blind green turtle (Stephania), they asked me in June 2000 to give her a home. She has been with us now for over ten years.
Other reptiles started to arrive, mainly because people walked in the door with them! Soon, anyone finding a snake on their property would either telephone or come rushing round to Aquaworld to ask for my help. This means that most of the time we are displaying almost all of the reptiles found locally.
But then other more exotic species started to arrive: iguanas, a Nile crocodile, large pythons, and so on. These were mainly unwanted pets because they had grown too big for their previous owners. We have taken in such animals from many parts of Greece, including from the EKPAZ (wildlife) centre in Aegina.
As we have become more and more involved with actual animal rescue and welfare, our job has become ever more fulfilling and I believe that this is reflected in the regard people hold Aquaworld with and why a visit is a must for many visitors to Crete.
How did the locals face the creation of the Aquaworld at first?
Generally, the locals didn't know what to think. One neighbor did bring her children in to visit us immediately when we opened, but many others didn't understand what the Aquaworld was about... They wanted to know if we sold fish and seemed quite surprised that anyone should want to just look at them.
Slowly, this has changed and the massive publicity surrounding the December 2005 opening of CretAquarium just a few kilometers away has helped people understand better what we have been doing here for the last fifteen years.
Of course, as I mentioned above, some of the Hersonissos fishermen have been very supportive from the very start and still bring their families in to see "their catch" swimming around in our tanks.
When I started to display giant pythons outside Aquaworld, some locals were a little afraid, but on the whole they quite enjoy seeing them there and many of them stop to stroke them. I was even told that some of the older villagers thought that the pythons were like the serpent in the Garden of Eden and that it would be good luck to touch them!
What are the most popular species that you host?
Stephania the blind turtle is always a favourite, as are our octopuses taking the lids off plastic bottles to get their food out. Getting photos while posing with the giant pythons and the big iguanas is also very popular. Conan the Destroyer is a magnificent European lobster who attracts a lot of attention, especially since we saved him from the cooking pot, and the highly toxic little baby pufferfish are as fascinating as they are deadly! As with everything, however, everyone has their own idea of what is beautiful and therefore their own special favorite animal...
A few days ago, John decided to sell the Aquaworld as he is now moving to his new wife's homeland, Australia, a much larger island. As he says, sadly all good things come to an end and he is now looking for a new owner of this up and running business.