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Underwater wonderland

Designing toys to outwit an octopus is one of many activities pupils visiting a Cornwall aquarium can try. Andrew Mourant reports

A little-known fact about the octopus: it is one of the cleverest creatures in the sea and relishes a good puzzle, particularly if the prize is a tasty morsel of fish.

Sassy, a giant Pacific octopus, originally from waters near Seattle in the United States, has applied tentacles and brain to wrestling with toys designed by Year 3 pupils from Threemilestone primary, near Truro in Cornwall. Each was designed to test her ingenuity at extracting a small piece of mackerel. The two-and-a-half-year-old octopus spans two metres and is a star attraction at the Blue Reef aquarium in Newquay, Cornwall.

Teams of seven to eight-year-olds were challenged to devise a feeding toy as a project set by the Education Business Partnership. One by one these were placed into Sassy's tank by display supervisor Matt Slater. She seemed puzzled when a Lego-like contraption, designed with small holes in which fish could be secured, floated to the top; but soon dismantled a device comprising plastic pipe with containers at each end, and tucked in.

Making toys for a brainy octopus is fun but, also, as school science co-ordinator Ian Boreham points out, a good cross-curriculum exercise. "We researched the octopus and the children had learning committees to organise ideas," he says. "It linked art, IT, geography, science and literacy."

Tarryn, eight, was involved in designing the Lego-type toy. "We knew Sassy was very strong," she says. "She has to take the top bits off and reach tentacles into the holes to get her food."

The small education team at Blue Reef, mainly comprising Matt Slater and Jess Buxton, both marine biology graduates, is increasingly leaning towards curriculum-linked projects.

Tours cover themes from learning about the food chain - how a single cell organism can affect the survival of sharks and whales - to camouflage, pollution, and reproduction. Classroom projects for the under-12s include a hunt for the young marine artist of the year, and a "Save our Seas"

competition to design a poster raising concerns about the fragile marine environment.

There are regular workshops; one looking at sharks, another at rock pools.

Matt Slater's affinity with marine life is traceable to childhood days spent scouring the shore at low tide. He grabs attention early in the tour, presenting the class with a sea cucumber, one of many exhibits inhabiting the 30 display tanks. Everyone is invited to touch it before learning about its defence mechanism. "When attacked, it squirts its guts out," says Matt.

"It can regrow its insides from skin."

As evidence of global warming, he points to a locally caught triggerfish.

"They are warm tropical water fish. When I was a boy you never used to find them off this coast, but you often do now."

And he has practical advice - what to do if you step on the poisonous spines of a weeverfish lurking in the sand. "It's very painful," he says.

"If you can, put your foot in hot water. When it happened to me, I poured a flask of hot coffee over it."

Exhibits range from turtles to sea horses to small black tip reef sharks.

Each has a story; although Blue Reef's 15 minutes of fame surrounds a creature no longer on show. "We had a rare albino lobster, but it was stolen three years ago," says Jess. "Its remains were found on the beach - it had been barbecued."

So a sharp eye is kept on the resident lobster-in-chief, Bert, a meaty 60-year-old specimen from Newquay waters. Visitors have been known to gaze upon him hungrily; but no one at Blue Reef wants to see Bert turned into thermidor.; tel: 01637 878134

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