Mosaic of China Season 01 Episode 14 – The Aquarium Queen (Emily MADGE, Sea Life)
In case you ever feel like complaining about bureaucracy and red tape in China, spare a thought for Emily Madge, who was part of the team in charge of transporting two beluga whales from Shanghai to Iceland.
EM: She grabs a businessman and starts dry-humping him, and his face.
OF: Oh my word!
OF: Welcome to Mosaic of China, a podcast about people who are making their mark in China. I'm your host Oscar Fuchs.
I'm really excited about releasing today's episode. It was a lot of fun to record, and hopefully just as fun to listen to. So let's not waste any time at all. Here is the conversation.
OF: Thank you so much for coming, Emily.
EM: Thank you for having me.
OF: I'm here with Emily Madge. And Emily is the Head of Asia for Conservation, Welfare and Education at Sea Life.
EM: Indeed I am.
OF: And we met, actually in the last year, we were at an event which was being held by our artist friend, Tom. Isn't that right?
EM: Which makes us sound very cultured, yes.
OF: Yes. That's exactly what I was going for. And when you told me what you did, I thought "Oh you know what, I have to have you on this podcast." And we'll find out why in a moment. But before we do, the first thing I ask everyone is, what is the object that you've bought which in some way typifies your life here in China?
EM: So I've brought with me a diving mask.
OF: Oh, very good.
EM: And I have brought this because I work for an aquarium called Sea Life. And I look after the Asian aquariums we have, as part of the Conservation, Welfare and Engagement. So I'm based here in Shanghai, and I brought the object because not only does it represent my career - I'm a marine biologist, I studied it at Aberystwyth University, but it also represents my love for the ocean, my hobbies, and how I got into my job.
OF: Great. Well, there's a lot of details you've already put in there. Maybe the first detail I should jump in on is 'Aberystwyth'. For people who don't know where that is, where are you from?
EM: So I'm from Cardiff in Wales, and Aberystwyth is a university more north in Wales.
OF: Great. So all together, how long have you been in this field?
EM: 11 years.
OF: Well, what really interested me when we first talked is specifically what you're doing here in China. There's been something which is very special here. So why don't you explain what has been I guess the bane of your life, really, for the last few months.
EM: So we acquired Shanghai Aquarium a few years ago, and we acquired it with two beluga whales that they were keeping. And as part of Sea Life policy, we do not keep marine mammals or cetaceans in captivity. So part of the acquisition was a plan to re-home and retire these whales, so they can live out the rest of their lives in a better place. And so a huge amount of work has gone into finding a retirement home for them, which has now been confirmed as a semi-wild sanctuary in Iceland. So the past ooh I'd say a year, I've been working closely with colleagues to work our way to move these whales from Shanghai over to Iceland. There's been a lot of work involved.
OF: Right. When I first thought about this situation, I thought about when you're in China, you come up against a lot of red tape, and sometimes it can be very Kafka-esque. You don't quite know how things are decided, it can be almost arbitrary. Where do you start with transporting a whale?
EM: Good question. So there's been lots of details we've had to cover. We have to prepare the whales for transport themselves. So we've had to do a lot of desensitisation training; we've had to train them new behaviours; we've had to increase their body fat, so they've got enough blubber to keep them warm in the cold Icelandic waters. We have engaged a transport company called Cargolux, who will be flying the whales over.
OF: Well, that was one of my questions.
EM: Yes, they will be flying, not swimming. And we've built bespoke transport boxes for them. So they'll be put in a transport stretcher and then that transport stretcher will sit in a box filled with water. And then we'll have vets and trainers on the flight, taking care of the animals the whole time.
OF: Wow. OK. Well, let's dissect that a little bit. How much of that, that you just described, would have been the case anywhere in the world? And how much have you had to deal with specifically for China?
EM: So it has been done, they move marine mammals around the world. Obviously, there's a lot of beluga whales and killer whales here. So they move them from Russia. There's quite a few people in the industry. But it's very unique for us to be moving whales out of China. And it's taken a lot of good relationships and a lot of time and energy to secure that agreement, that we can move them. And it's been a very, very interesting project, because we're going out of China back into Europe. The details around it, I could bore you for days.
OF: What can you think of maybe one thing that has gone particularly smoothly, and then maybe one thing that's been the most difficult.
EM: So I think that generally the project's gone very smoothly. The whales are in great health, we've got a great team of people working with them. Logistically, we've built these boxes from scratch, one of my colleagues designed them just based on some information he had from other marine mammal transports. We've engaged consultants and vets, everyone's been very engaged in the process. And so it's been a very smooth process, in that sense. There have been so many challenges along the way. Fine details. Ice on the plane was an issue.
OF: Ice on the plane?
EM: Yeah, through customs. We've had various hurdles, small details that you wouldn't imagine would be a problem, have then been a problem. So it's required a lot of patience. But we finally got there.
OF: And tell me more about this structure that you built. Do you have a photo that maybe you can share with me afterwards?
EM: Yeah, of course.
EM: So it's a bespoke structure that's reinforced, obviously, to handle the weight of lifting the whales. The whales are, we think about one tonne in weight. So the poles have had to be bespoke-made, as well as the stretcher to fit the whale. And then we've had to actually train the whales to swim into the stretcher as a desensitisation process so that they don't freak out when we actually put the stretcher in the water. So we designed those way back when, and we've been working with the whales with them ever since.
OF: Now let me interject here with… If now and again, I can just say the words "fish fact" at you, would you be able to say a fish fact about anything that the average listener wouldn't have known?
EM: I can indeed.
OF: OK. Well, let me just jump in then, FISH FACT!
EM: OK, fish fact. So everyone knows Nemo. So all clown fish are actually born as males, but they live in a hierarchy. So the female fish is at the top - there's only one female - and when she dies, another male will transition into a female.
OF: Wow. So hang on, there's only one female giving birth to the whole shoal?
EM: Only one female laying eggs, yeah.
OF: Oh, my word. OK. My mind has gone into something quite dirty right now. That would be a very different Nemo movie.
EM: It's not that dirty. She lays eggs, and then the male comes in and fertilises them separate, so…
OF: Exactly. Exactly. Sorry, OK. Well I will definitely jump in with another question later. But going back to the whale, then. So you've acclimatised the whale to swimming into this harness, I guess is what it is, a sling.
OF: But how did you get them acclimatised to being on a plane? Because that's something which you probably can't predict.
EM: Yep. So there's no way of doing that. The only thing we can do is ensure that we've got everything in their environment perfect. So that when they when they're actually in transit, they're as comfortable as possible. And so that goes with water temperature, we have a filtration system that's on the flight circulating the water, we have vets with them the whole time, trainers with them who they're familiar with to keep them reassured throughout the journey. There's so much going into it. As you say, we can't predict what they'll do on the flight. But we know we can keep them as calm as possible.
OF: I've been on some flights where actually I wouldn't mind having somebody there to give me a massage.
EM: I know. I think this is first class treatment.
OF: Absolutely. OK, so this has been pretty much the key part of your experience in China, I would assume.
EM: Yes, this has definitely been a huge focus for me since I've been here.
OF: Apart from dealing with a whale, how has your experience in China been different to your other experiences over the last 11 years?
EM: Gosh, very different. It's been my first shot in a regional role. So looking after more than one aquarium, but being based in China, has been eye opening, and a new way of working for me.
OF: Hang on, FISH FACT!
EM: Oh, fish fact. OK, when you turn a shark upside down, it goes into a state of trance, it's called 'tonic immobility'. And it'll just lie there completely still until you turn it back over.
OF: That's exactly like me with gin and tonic immobility. And have you seen this, or is it just something you've heard of?
EM: Yeah, absolutely. They use it quite a lot in other aquariums so we can do medical checks and stuff. So you turn the shark over, you can do a full examination without having to sedate or use any medication.
OF: Wow, that's handy, right?
EM: Very handy. Yeah, I mean, I wouldn't want to try it with a great white, but people have
OF: Wow. OK, well thank you for that. Going back then, to what we were still talking about with China, in terms of the people you work with here then, how have they managed you coming in?
EM: They've been so welcoming, it's been very different for me being in a remote support role to all these other aquariums. So not having a real team was a big shock for me. But the guys in the China office have been fabulous. I think there's any one other foreigner in the office, and they do they take care of us. And they've been wonderful. So…
OF: You said in general, it's not a big deal to have mammals and whales in aquariums in China. What has been your experience of, to what extent your situation here in Shanghai is similar to elsewhere in China, or in what way it's unique?
EM: No, very unique. I think there's a huge aquarium industry in China, and there are so many opening every year. And marine mammals are part of that, the Chinese do love big marine mammals, and having that selfie moment, and seeing the shows. So what we're doing is quite the opposite, it's very unique in that sense. We've had a lot of guests in, and we were talking about what we're doing, and we've had good feedback from the guests that have come into the aquarium, when we've told them about the project. But it's just a new initiative for China, and hopefully, it will influence and educate some of the Chinese guests - who do like aquariums, and who do visit marine mammal parks - to just perhaps start thinking differently about marine mammals in captivity.
OF: Right. So your point is that it's more an education in ecology and sustainability. And it's not about the entertainment side, as much as the education side.
EM: Of course, yeah.
OF: OK, FISH FACT!
EM: Ach, OK. Fish fact. Um, so when a starfish eats, it expels its stomach out of its mouth, digests the food externally, and then sucks it up. And sucks its stomach back in, to take it in.
EM: You just look amazed by that.
OF: Yeah, I'm amazed. So is it like a like flypaper, where it sticks to the stomach, And then you can just bring it in?
EM: No, it surrounds the food, and then all the digestive enzymes digest it.
OF: Outside the body…
EM: Outside the body, and then it sucks it up when it's all more liquidised.
OF: Right. And do you know how often they feed?
EM: Not that often. Once a day?
OF: Right. Because doesn't it expend a whole bunch of energy to…
EM: Yeah, and they don't really move around a lot. You know, they don't need that much food.
OF: Right. Thank you. These are good, these facts. Well, we talked about what you're doing now. So wow on earth did you get to this point?
EM: So I started my career in Weymouth, working for the same department.
OF: Where is Weymouth, for those who don't know the UK?
EM: Sorry, it's in the south of England, a lovely little town in the south of England that I'm very fond of. And I started my career there, working for this department. And I just had the opportunity, really, to travel and support the sites. It's been, I guess, a lot of spontaneous decisions, and sacrifices, but also wonderful options, that have led me to now living in China. I certainly don't take the easy route. I'm up for taking random challenges on, whether they be in China or wherever. But it leads to a unique and fun life. And I've met some incredible people along the way.
OF: And what was your very first job in this field? Do you remember that?
EM: So I started as a jellyfish aquarist.
EM: And so we were breeding jellyfish to supply to the other Sea Life aquariums in the UK and Europe. Quite random, as a first job.
EM: And then I moved on to doing the same for seahorses. So we breed jellyfish and seahorses for display in other Sea Life centres. So we weren't taking them from the wild, we were captive breeding them.
OF: And I guess there must be quite a few people who'd studied marine biology, but probably it's quite rare to land the job, even though it was just jellyfish. Like, you say it was random, but I bet it was pretty lucky at that point.
EM: Very lucky.
EM: I think when I chose to do marine biology, everyone was saying to me, there's no money in animals or dead people.
OF: Oh, what?
EM: This was the advice I was given, yes.
OF: But everyone dies.
EM: I know. But apparently, there's no money in it. As a pathologist.
EM: But I had such a love for the ocean, and I was just so interested in it, that I went ahead and did the degree. And it was so lucky. I was so lucky to get the opportunity that I was given.
OF: Well then, obviously somebody who was your senior back then told you that piece of advice. If there was a youngster here in the room, saying "I want to do this", what advice would you give them then, admitting that it was lucky?
EM: Oh, absolutely follow your heart and your passion. I think you have to want to get up for work, you have to have a bit of passion and a bit of drive for it. And it's not always easy, and it's long hours, but if you care, then you'll do it. And so 100% go with your gut. For anyone who wants to get into the marine biology industry, I strongly recommend doing a lot of work experience, it all falls down to work experience now.
OF: It's funny you said that about just following your heart, because I can obviously your passionate about this is palpable, even in this small room. And it reminds me that you actually haven't had a very easy time, especially in the last year, with health issues.
EM: So last year was certainly the most challenging year of my life so far. You know, it was nothing major, but it was an accumulation of different stresses: settling into China, settling into the new job. It just all happened in one year. Very, very challenging, but very grateful to be where I am now. And it just makes you a stronger person, right? If you go through things like that, and you come out the other end with a smile. It was all worth it.
OF: Absolutely. Well, look, thanks so much for that. It's been a pleasure speaking to you about this. Before we go into the next section, I have to obviously say FISH FACT!
EM: Oh, OK. Fish fact, fish fact. Male angler fish glue themselves to the female vagina to mate.
OF: OK, thank you for that. I really didn't know we're going to be going down this route with these fish facts. I'm starting to reconsider this idea.
EM: Sorry, I'll keep it clean from now on.
OF: OK. What we'll do, is we'll move on to the next section.
OF: So here we go. What is your favourite China-related fact?
EM: Oh, that one in every five people in the world as Chinese.
OF: Is it one in five? Wow. And presumably they're not all in China, this is the whole diaspora included?
OF: Wow. Do you have a favourite word or phrase in Chinese?
EM: This is really obvious. But my favourite one is 没有 [méiyǒu].
OF: 没有 [Méiyǒu].
EM: Because of the amount of times it's been said to me during the beluga project.
EM: And the amount of hurdles we've had, because of that word. So I wouldn't say it was my favourite, but it's the most relevant.
OF: Absolutely. And just to any non-Chinese speakers, what does it mean?
OF: What's your favourite destination within China?
EM: I'm a big fan of 三亚 [Sānyà]. Just because it's beachy, and it's more my kind of thing than a city.
OF: It's the closest thing to Weymouth in China.
EM: Yes, it is.
OF: Right. Do you know, I haven't been there yet.
EM: It's wonderful, you need to go.
OF: OK. I think it's because whenever I go south, I tend to go to Hong Kong. And I would get a little bit in trouble if I go all the way down, and don't go there. But maybe next time, I'll just do it on the sly.
EM: Yeah, you should pop over, it's worth it.
OF: Oh, very nice.
EM: Oh, I have another China fact.
EM: A fun one
OF: Go on.
EM: Apparently stamp collecting is the most popular hobby in China.
OF: Is that right, though?
EM: That's what I read.
OF: OK. Even now?
EM: Yeah, that's what it said.
OF: OK, I'm gonna have to corroborate that, I'll see if that's right or not.
OF: If you did leave China, what would be the thing you missed the most, and what would be the thing you missed the least?
EM: The thing I've missed the most? Definitely the people. I've met such wonderful people here. The thing that I wouldn't miss is - I've got to say it - it's the spitting.
EM: I still can't… I still can't get used to it.
OF: It's funny, actually. Because nowadays, especially in Shanghai, I find that they didn't really do it as much as perhaps in other areas.
EM: Maybe we move in different circles.
OF: Oh. Right. That's so funny. Actually, I had my family in town, and we were travelling. And it's the one thing my father - who is very patient and open-minded and easygoing - it's the one thing he will lose his **** over.
OF: And I I was saying to him "Oh, you know what, it's overblown. People don't really do it as much as you think". And then, of course, this taxi driver literally, every other traffic light he would open the window and hock a loogie.
EM: Yeah, it's not good. And my favourite is when I'm on my scooter, and the guy in front decides to hock one out. That's lovely, when it sprays on me.
EM: So I won't miss that
EM: For sure.
OF: OK. And especially because, where you are, you get a lot more earthy people.
EM: Earthy people. Yes, it's in, I think, the second biggest park in Shanghai. That's where our aquarium is based. So there's a lot of the older generation bringing grandchildren there.
EM: It's wonderful in the mornings when they're doing Tai Chi and everyone's out, you know, playing sports and stuff, but…
OF: How funny. Now, is there anything that still mystifies you about life in China?
EM: Oh, um, everything. Everything mystifies me. I think every day there's something that fascinates me. I still can't get my head around any of it, but it's fabulous.
OF: Where's your favourite place to go eat drink or hang out?
EM: Oh, um, where's my favourite place? I tend to be lazy with it, really. Kind of Funkadeli area, just because it's five minutes walk from home, there's always people there. I love hotpot. So any good hotpot restaurant.
OF: Even the spicy one?
EM: The spicy one is the best. Yeah, I love that. So, yeah, I float around. I wouldn't say I have one place in particular.
EM: And I also travel quite a lot for work. So I wouldn't say I'm here that often to be a regular anywhere.
OF: Right. And what is the best or the worst purchase you made in China?
EM: So I'm addicted to Taobao.
OF: You're not the first person sat in that chair who's said that.
EM: But the best purchase is definitely my scooter.
OF: Oh, right.
EM: Yeah. I love my scooter.
OF: I've never seen you on that scooter.
EM: Oh, wow. You can come for ride on it if you want.
OF: Oh, yes please.
EM: Worst purchase? Probably some fake red wine I bought from a shop once. Clearly in the wrong bottle.
EM: It was awful.
OF: Oh, really? That's interesting. So it does happen, because I heard that as a kind of apocryphal tale.
EM: It definitely happens. Oh right.
OF: What's your favourite WeChat sticker? In fact, turn on your phone and send it to me.
OF: OK. Well, why don't you explain what's going on in that sticker?
EM: Um, so it's a woman with attitude, strutting down the street. And she grabs a businessman and starts dry-humping him, and his face.
OF: Oh my word!
EM: It sounds really random. I don't know how to describe it. How would you describe it?
OF: That's how it looks. I'm actually… I'm a little bit embarrassed, am I going red?
EM: That's why it's my favourite. You have to post it.
OF: OK, I'm posting it. I definitely… I'm doing it under duress. This is objectifying. I am completely scandalised by this one.
EM: OK, I'm sorry to put you in that position.
OF: No, it's very funny. Good. What's your go-to song to sing at KTV?
EM: Um, so I'm not much of a singer at KTV. I'm usually the one sat down watching, drinking the wine. But I would go 'Hey, Jude'.
EM: If I had to.
OF: Even with all the long "Laa, laa, laa…"
EM: Yeah, it gets everyone going. Everyone joins in with the "Laa, laa"s.
EM: Maybe it's an end-of-the-night kind of one.
OF: Yeah. When you don't remember how annoyed you are at the 10th "Laa, laa, laa…"
EM: Yeah. And everyone's too drunk to remember me singing.
OF: That's actually a very good point, because then everyone sings on top of you, and you can just slide away and go back to the wine in the corner.
OF: Oh very good.
EM: It's tactical.
OF: And finally, what other China-related media or sources of information do you rely on?
EM: Probably SmartShanghai. SmartShanghai and WeChat are my two. And Taobao.
EM: These are my three China apps that I go to.
OF: Excellent. Well, thank you so much. And the last question I asked everyone is, if I were to interview someone who you know, who would that person be?
EM: So I'm going to nominate my friend Oanh who is a flavour chemist. She works here in Shanghai, I think she's been here three years now with her company. Very interesting job, I don't know anybody else who does it. So she would be my recommendation.
OF: Sounds perfect. Well, thank you so much.
EM: Thank you.
OF: Well, what can I say, that was at once one of the most silly, and the most sublime episodes of the season. A big thanks again to Emily for being such a good sport.
The first thing I wanted to say is the fact that Emily mentioned about stamp collecting. So I read that there has been a recent boom in the last few years in stamp collecting as a hobby in China. And an estimated one third of all global stamp collectors are now in China. But what I couldn't find was anything that said that stamp collecting was the number one hobby in China. I'm going to put this question out there on the WeChat groups and see if anyone knows more about that. If you'd like to join the conversations, please add me on my Wechat ID: mosaicofchina,* and I'll add you there myself.
The second thing, of course, is an update about the whales. So I'm happy to report that since this episode was recorded, the whales have at last been flown successfully to Iceland. They're doing very well. They're currently in another holding tank and have been going through further training and preparation to be released into the bay itself in Iceland. Emily let me know that some of the Chinese team has continued to be involved in this long process, which won't be completed until well into next year. I've posted lots and lots of photos of the whales on social media. Apart from WeChat, you can also find these on Instagram under @mosaicofchina_* and Facebook under @mosaicofchina. There's the special transport structure that Emily mentioned. There's the whale going into the plane itself, and really a gratuitous amount of photos of the whales, who are so full of personality. Some of these were from Emily, and others were from the Instagram account which has accompanied this whole project. You can find that on @belugawhalesanctuary, all one word. The other graphics are of course Emily and her object, the diving mask; her favourite sticker, which I take no responsibility for; there's a graphic for 没有 [méiyǒu], the word that means 'no', which Emily encountered so much during the project. Actually, this graphic is a strange panda/human hybrid character that I've seen a lot on social media in China, but I have no idea where it comes from. So that's another thing that I need an answer for. I'll ask the WeChat groups, but if you know then, please get in touch. There's also SmartShanghai; there's Funkadeli; there's also a photo of 三亚 [Sānyà] in China side by side with Weymouth in the UK. I haven't been to either place myself, so I was quite surprised to see the vague similarity between the two.
And for anyone else keeping tally Emily's answers also link very nicely to other episodes in Season 01. So her answer to what what she missed the most if she left China was the people, which is the same as Sebastien Denes, the diversity advocate from Episode 11. Her answer to "Is there anything that still mystifies you about China" was "Everything", which is exactly the same answer as Eric, the journalist from Episode 03. And finally, her answer to the question about her best purchase in China was her scooter, which is now the fourth mentioned of that answer. The others were Philippe, the Disneyland CEO from Episode 01; Jorge, the marketer at Coca-Cola from Episode 05; and Vy from FitFam in Episode 08.
Mosaic of China is me Oscar Fuchs, extra editing support from Milo de Prieto, artwork by Denny Newell, and China support from Alston Gong. And this week, as a special treat to anyone who has listened this far, I'm including some extra audio. I usually have a bit of silly chitchat with each guest at the start of their interview, just to get us both relaxed. And as you can imagine, my chitchat with Emily was sillier than most, so I thought you might like to hear it. See you next time.
*Different WeChat and Instagram handles were mentioned in the original recording. These IDs are now obsolete, and the updated details have been substituted.
OF: I was thinking this morning, I have a friend called Jennifer, and she has a really big thing which she doesn't like about men in showers.
OF: It's when a man - I think it's usually a man, but you can correct me if you know of any women who do this - when you're in the shower, you blow your nose. You hold one nostril and all of it goes out, and then you hold the other one, "bleurgh!"
EM: I don't think that's a common thing for people to do. I've never seen a man do this, but then I can't say I've watched many men shower. I can confirm I don't do this.
OF: Because the steam from the shower, it loosens it. And so it's basically running anyway, I think.
EM: I mean, I'll look out for it.
EM: I'll feed back.
Oscar Fuchs was the Co-Founder and Managing Director of a global executive search firm dedicated to the Human Resources profession. He was born in the UK and has lived in Asia for 18 years, including 3 years in Hong Kong SAR, and 7 years in mainland China. In 2019 he sold his company, and launched Mosaic of China.