General Articles

Tempest in a Fishbowl

To publicize his aquarium, Ivar Haglund has octopuses climbing mountains, seals felling forests and newspapers eating out of his hand

PIERRE BERTON November 1 1947
General Articles

Tempest in a Fishbowl

To publicize his aquarium, Ivar Haglund has octopuses climbing mountains, seals felling forests and newspapers eating out of his hand

PIERRE BERTON November 1 1947

Tempest in a Fishbowl


ONCE upon a time a visitor to Ivar Hnglund’s aquarium attempted to awaken a sleeping shark by rapping on the glass with a silver dollar. He was so successful that he broke the glass, the shark tumbled out into his lap and the aquarium was cleared of paying guests quicker than you can cry “crustacean.”

To lesser men, this sort of thing would be a minor calamity. To Haglund it was a godsend. He quickly scooped up the shark, thrust it into a second tank and prepared a large sign stat ing that this vicious, man-eating fish, maddened by captivity, had smashed the glass on its tank and attempted to escape. Business was good all that week.

It is this brand of resourcefulness that has, in 10years, elevated 42-year-old Ivar Haglund to the position of undisputed aquarium king of the Pacific Northwest. A roly-poly, somewhat sheepish-looking little man, he commutes between his aquariums in Vancouver and Seattle in a car fitted out with a fish tank in the trunk compartment. His shy appearance is deceptive, for he has never lacked newspaper space or the ability to go after it, and stories about him and his submarine specimens have made headlines in such widely divergent publications as t he Guam Navy News and the Stockholm New Day.

Sometimes, indeed, the newspapers’ coverage of Ivar has proved downright embarrassing. Last spring, for instance, the Vancouver Sun on its main city page carried a three-column headline announcing that Haglund was in town offering $5,000 for the capture of a sea serpent named the Madrona Monster, which he claimed was

To publicize his aquarium, Ivar Haglund has octopuses climbing mountains, seals felling forests and newspapers eating out of his hand

headed for English Bay (where by chance, his aquarium is situated). In the same edition, on the front page, under another three-column headline, a United Press dispatch from Seattle told how Haglund at that very moment was at sea off the Aleutians with an octopus named Oscar who was going to climb 5,000 feet down an undersea mountain in search for marine specimens.

“I wish these fellows would watch their release dates,” said Ivar with an annoyed frown.

Thanks to the pulp magazines, the octopus is the mainstay of Ivar’s business and Ivar himself has done as many things with an octopus as Howard Hughes did with Jane Russell. He has taken an octopus for walks in front of his aquarium on spring days, talked about its sex life in guarded tones, exploited it as a paragon of docility, and matched it with Tony Galento.

This last exploit was probably the high point of the Haglund octopus campaign. Galento, who has also wrestled ostriches and chimpanzees, quickly accepted Haglund’s challenge, came down to Ivar’s Seattle aquarium, looked at t he monster, and promptly drank half a bottle of whisky. Then he shouted that he would murder the bum, leaped into the tank and almost immediately disappeared beneath the surface with the octopus in tow. A moment later he was up and out of the tank, shouting that the octopus had fouled him and that he was the winner by default.

Ivar’s recent “mountain climbing” expedition with Oscar III was almost as sensational. It was, the news dispatches said, as unique a bit of alpine work as you could hope to see. The octopus was going to start at the top of Miller Seamount, a great underwater peak off the Aleutians, and climb all the way down while Ivar paid out the leash to which the Continued on page 59

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beast was attached. In a follow-up story the next day, Ivar revealed that Oscar had reached his goal after insurmountable odds. When he reached the halfway point, Ivar said, the octopus had been dislodged by a submarine storm and had fallen straight upward for 2,500 feet. The octopus tried again, however, according to Ivar, and this time succeeded in reaching the base of the underwater mountain, bringing back as proof a sprig of sea eidleweiss which grows only at great depths.

Ivar was well fitted for the aquarium business when he started in Seattle 10 years ago, having just graduated from college with a degree in economics and business administration. What he didn’t know about aquariums would fill Puget Sound. But he did know that neither Seattle nor Vancouver had an aquarium and he, Ivar, was determined to give both cities one. But it wasn’t quite that easy.

Ivar started by buying a lot of fish and putting them in tanks, appraising their compatibility by their looks. He proved to be an unfortunate judge of piscatorial character for most of the fish promptly gobbled each other up.

Cruelty to Crabs?

In Vancouver, Ivar had special trouble. He decided to build his aquarium in an old bathhouse on English Bay near Stanley Park after reading some published transactions of the Royal Society of Canada by a UBC professor, which he says described the waters of the bay as having the ideal temperature and salinity suitable to the breeding of ocean life. Ivar ran a pipe line 700 feet out into the bay and proceeded to fill his tanks. The water that poured in was thicker than clam chowder, and so muddy you couldn’t see four inches into the tank. Ivar phoned the professor and asked him to drop around, then confronted him with the murky water and a good many dead fish.

“He took one look at the tank, then asked me to wait for him a moment as his wife was outside in the car and a little nervous,” Ivar recalls. “He went out and I never saw him again.”

Ivar installed an expensive 20,000 gallon storage tank and filter system, but even now he loses a good many pets in the summertime. When the west wind blows, the water turns brackish and a Fraser River freshet will be fatal to as much as 50% of the life in the aquarium. (The Fraser is as muddy as chocolate.) Now Ivar is dickering for a new site at the Stanley Park entrance.

Ivar was just going strong when he ran into a second snarl. Members of the SPCA, goaded by an enterprising newsman, were complaining that ha was feeding the octopus live crabs. Ivar explained that an octopus will eat only live crabs and anyway, he added, a crab wasn’t an animal—the whole situation was a job for the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Crustaceans. The SPCA compromised by asking him if he’d mind feeding the octopus at night, when nobody would notice, but Ivar said no, the octopus didn’t like to eat at night, he couldn’t get to sleep. There the matter still rests.

By this time Ivar knew plenty about the ocean and its inhabitants. The most useful thing he discovered was that he didn’t have to go farther than 10 miles from his Vancouver aquarium to get. all the strange and exotic fish he needed. He picked up pink and maroon zebra fish from Coal Harbor, tiny green

blennies from under the rocks at English Bay, tube worms, sea urchins, box crabs and sea whips from the surrounding beaches and inlets. People, staring through the glass at the multicolored fish often think they’re looking at something out of the South Seas, hut Ivar hasn’t gone far out of the harbor’s mouth for any of them.

About 1941, when the papers were seeking escape stories to contrast with the war news, Ivar and his ocean friends began to hit the headlines. In Vancouver he held a Christmas party for his fish, buying up Japanese fish festival flags and celluloid sea toys to hang on the tree in the aquarium. In Seattle he dressed up a baby seal in swaddling clothes and wheeled it down the main street and into a department store to see Santa Claus, who gave it a rubber ball.

Then he started a controversy which raged for weeks over the relative merits of milk chowder and chowder made with tomatoes. This was to publicize his new sea food restaurant “Acres of Clams,” an offshoot of his Seattle aquarium. Ivar, unfortunately, took the side of milk chowder and had to call the controversy off when he found his own eating place persisted in selling the tomato kind—it was cheaper and easier to make. “A clam is silent as an oyster,” says Ivar. “The poor little guy just has to have somebody like me to do his talking for him.” He has extended this admirable philanthropy to almost all the other creatures of the deep, giving each in turn the star treatment.

Ivar’s publicity sense • paid off in dollars. His first year as an aquarium manager netted him only $1,000 but within 10 years he was able to build his “Acres of Clams” sea food restaurant (cost $40,000) which he hopes will net him $10,000 in 1947. “So far,” says Ivar, “It’s only paid off in clamshells.” Nowadays Ivar’s Seattle aquarium makes $5,000 a year and his Vancouver offshoot about $2,000 annually. He’s leaving his Vancouver profits alone in anticipation of a new aquarium in that city.

Red’s His Favorite Color

Perhaps the most intriguing headline he produced was the “Sea Flower Kills Shark in Marine Drama” story. In Ivar’s aquariums all dogfish are known as sharks for publicity reasons. This unfortunate dogfish (or shark) swam, or was pushed, over the top of a sea anemone, which isn’t a flower but looks like one. The anemone gets its food by closing over just such an unsuspecting fish as this shark (or dogfish), paralyzing it first, then swallowing it. That’s what happened in this case. The 20-inch dogfish was partially swallowed by the anemone which couldn’t quite get all of it down. “Sea dramas” such as this one are, if not, encouraged, certainly not frowned on in the Haglund aquariums. He’s had more that one triangle story in which jealous male octopuses fight to the death over an eight-armed sweetheart.

Haglund’s advertisement for a talking parrot (“fine opportunity for right bird”) to give his water-front restaurant character, produced dozens of feathered applicants whom Ivar soberly interviewed before a crowd of spectators and photographers. His offer to feed the entire city council of Seattle free at his restaurant, if they’d paint the city fireboat scarlet, got columns of controversy in the newspapers and caused his cafe to get its name officially on the public record. And when a railroad car burst open in front of his place, spewing tons of corn syrup for an entire block, Haglund made the wire photos by donning a huge bib, wading

to the centre of the sticky mass in hip books, depositing a stack of hot cakes in the syrup and calmly eating away until the photographers left. Now Haglund is planning a second “Acres of Clams” in Vancouver and reporters are sharpening their copy pencils.

Haglund’s sea serpent, the “Madrona Monster” which he claimed to have seen in Lake Madrona, Washington, was in the news last spring. Ivar claimed that the lockmaster on the lake saw the monster escape, hiding behind an outgoing freighter. Then he produced two fishermen who alleged to have seen it heading north. Ivar said he believed it would turn up in Lost Lagoon, Stanley Park, but hurriedly changed the locale to English Bay when reminded that the Lagoon is landlocked. Nobody has yet claimed the $5,000 he offered for its capture, dead or alive.

At this writing, Haglund is in the midst of another great sea story. A synopsis of the script (taken from the wires of United Press) goes something like this: Great seal herds, fearful of

the hunter now that the seal bounty has been raised from $3 to $8, are retreating inland. Deprived of normal food, they are attacking British Columbia forests, gnawing down trees like beavers. A trapper named Les Johnson actually saw a seal, two miles from water, fell a six-inch Douglas fir with his teeth.

Johnson, it turns out, is Haglund’s deputy at the Vancouver aquarium. Haglund, of course, appears briefly in the story, but, following usual procedure, doesn’t hog it. “Only scoffer” reports UP “is Ivar Haglund, the aquarium manager . . .”

“Get It On the Record”

Ivar has now reached the point where he seldom has to ask for publicity. “I haven’t been near a city desk for a year,” he boasted the other day. “They come to me.” His formula is a sure one. Invariably he seeks to surround his stories with an aura of authenticity. “If you can make a communication official, part of the public record, you’re cinched,” he points out, recalling the red paint and the Seattle fireboat. Ivar got a professor of art from the university to tell the newspapers about the aesthetic values of red over grey on the water front.

As for the mountain climbing octopus, Ivar tied the whole thing up with a Geodetic Survey, even got himself photographed on board the survey boat going over charts and maps with the captain.

Haglund’s second cardinal principle is to glamourize sea life. “You’ve got to dress it up, or they’ll never go for it,” he explains. Even his most inanimate ocean dwellers have names and are treated as strange but interesting human beings. Barney, the barnacle, for example is “like a circus performer who lives in a home with double-action sliding doors.”

“If I had to publicize a jellyfish,” Haglund once said, “I’d build her up as a dangerous, frightful creature—yet still beautiful. Like a woman—dangerously seductive. And I’d get a good euphonious name, like Josephine.”

“Another thing—always come to the defense of the poor, unfortunate creatures,” Haglund advises prospective aquarium managers.

“An octopus,” he once told interviewers, “is very shy, sensitive and misunderstood. Contrary to general belief, he is not a vicious, ruthless denizen of the deep. This is just a defensive pose assumed to cover an inferiority complex. Marmaduke here is just as his name implies—shy,gentle, refined.”

Although his veins are reputed to

run with brine, rather than blood, Haglund’s first love is not his aquarium nor his octopuses. When he can get away from the smell of the sea he likes to collect folk songs of the Pacific Northwest, and he’s rapidly gaining the reputation of a connoisseur. People up and down the coast hear him on the radio singing what he calls “clam bed calypso” in a rather moody monotone, accompanying himself on the guitar. Some of the songs he collects himself, others he invents in the manner of Trinidad’s calypso singers.

No Home Aquarium

A few are sung in Chinook, the hybrid tongue invented by the Northwest Indians and traders which is known from Oregon to the Yukon. Chinook has added words like “tillicum” and “skookum” to our own language. Haglund doesn’t understand it himself but sings it phonetically. He’s sung “Pistol-Packing Mama” and “Open the Door, Richard” in Chinook with huge success, but these days he’s a little wary of the language. A while ago a Machiavellian listener sent in several phonetic songs in Chinook which Ivar sang on the radio. There was a terrible howl of protest from Chinook-speaking listeners, who turned out to be fairly numerous. The ballads weren’t the sort that were suitable for mixed company.

Chubby, diminutive Ivar, and his dark, petite Canadian-born wife, whom he says he met “at an old-fashioned clambake,” have a hillside home on Alki Point in Seattle overlooking Puget. Sound. The house itself, of whitewashed brick, has a nautical air and the wind from the sea is broken by 10 tall, 40-year-old black walnut trees. Mrs. Haglund, who views her husband’s fish tales with tolerance and whimsey, won’t serve sea food at home, but has permitted a few vases shaped like fish to creep in among the bric-abrac.

Ivar once had a small home aquarium over the fireplace which he maintained with some thoroughness until he attempted to raise a baby octopus. “There were too many prejudiced and narrow-minded objections,” he recalls. “The aquarium was then discontinued and so the question of how good a house pet and possible watchdog an octopus can be is yet unsolved.”

The Reason For It All

If some of the stories that creep into the newspapers via Ivar are a little far-fetched, Ivar can rationalize their use. He admits, for example, that Oscar the octopus didn’t really climb down any undersea mountain, but he insists that the story contributed greatly to the general knowledge of undersea mountains, which is what the U. S. Coast and Geodetic Survey was after. And maybe there aren’t any seals actually eating trees, says Ivar, but it’s time people were jacked up on forest conservation.

“You’ve got to give them the sugar coating,” he says. “Otherwise they won’t read the stuff at all.” Nor presumably would they travel to the aquarium, as they do these days by the tens of thousands.

Ivar’s present expansion plans are centred on Vancouver where he hopes to build a new combination aquariumsea food palace right on the water front. Like his place in Seattle, it will be known as “Acres of Clams,” a title he picked up from an early folk song called “The Settler.”

But Ivar himself isn’t too fond of clams or any other sea food for that matter. “Personally,” he admits, “I’d just as soon have a good, big steak.” ★