Hello, everyone, and I hope you all had a festive and explosive July 4th! Mine was fairly standard as it included quality time with the cousins, grilling burgers and dogs, a cake decorated as an American flag, and culminated in my father throwing firecrackers at the neighbors. You gotta love them (and I do)!
Since I am in the celebratory mood I want to take this opportunity to hail one my favorite career positions. It is challenging, it is dirty, it requires extensive critical thinking, and it’s guaranteed to deliver a skin rash to the most durable epidermis. I’ve clocked in nine years at this post and it has taught me mad multitasking skills along with the joys of hydrocortisone cream.
The one, the only, The Aquarist.
One of the best things about being an aquarist is the myriad of animals you interact with and care for. Typically in zoos and aquariums your department is focused on one animal or species; primates, tigers, dolphins, pinnipeds, or hoofstock. An aquarist? You get it all! Sharks, stingrays, sea turtles, crustaceans, reptiles, fish, corals, and the octopus are all part of your daily routine. There is so much to learn and a mountain of daily tasks so it can be overwhelming at first. However, once you have it down you are the multitasking octopus. You can weigh out meds, while waiting for the results of a calcium test titration, and keep an eye on a (hopefully) balanced water change that you started on a tank in your line of vision. You can chop fish, peel shrimp, stuff vitamins, and weigh it all out into individual diets so fast that you feel like you smoked meth for breakfast. You become a novice plumber, electrician, and exhibit designer because ain’t nobody got time for a work order. Your fingers are always sporting a few dozen shallow cuts from moving live rock. Top it all off with the endless glass cleaning and maintenance, tasks that require bending over the tanks for hours and testing just how strong your back is. If you’re a dude then you’re constantly trying to get around the corners of a tank so you don’t squash your junk (i.e. genitals). If you’re a chick then your boobs are destined to end up in the tank when you try and reach the bottom with your acrylic scraper or vacuum hose. My uniform shirt as an aquarist was a dark blue and by the end of the day I had a dark blue shirt with a dried saltwater bandeau.
Aquarists are comprised of some serious mettle. Who else will play with electricity while surrounded by saltwater? Even when you are actively trying not to get shocked, it still happens. Your powerhead ( a small submersible tank motor) has a short and you have small cuts on your hands. As soon as you touch the water? ZAP! I once lost my grip and dropped a hood light (a great big metal box with fluorescent bulbs teeming with electricity) into a large aquarium tank. My only and immediate thought? Instant panic because my curator was going to murder me so the second it slipped I grabbed for it … a split second after it had made contact with the water. Let’s just say I took the rest of the day off and nursed a bottle of wine. No one else, outside of a true plumbing career, knows the agony of gluing pipes and fittings together just to realize it’s not right. Nobody else knows the torture of manually starting a suction to vacuum a fouled tank and getting a mouthful of rank, salty shrimp excrement. You have to know endless cycles of tanks (bacterial), parasites, chemical reactions, digestive processes, volume and weight conversions, and all the intricacies of behavior to proactively identify problems. During all of this mayhem you have to keep your area spotless as cross-contamination is our version of the boogeyman. We are terrified of it. You know the dread kids feel when the lights go off and the closet door is still cracked open? That’s how an aquarist feels when you use the same net or piece of equipment in multiple tanks without sanitizing it in between. Heathens!
In a nutshell, you have to be a biologist, chemist, behaviorist, vet tech, plumber, electrician, dietician, janitor, and pharmacist every single day. It rocks but it is a tall order. You drag home daily feeling like someone worked you over with a stick while forcing you take a calculus exam. Your prize? A mouthful of shrimp shit.
Now, those are the weary parts. The awesome parts will far outweigh those. You can target train sharks, jump in and scrub sea turtles, hand feed stingrays, feed a 300 lb. grouper, make octopus toys, feed alligators, scuba dive, and play with seahorses. You usually get to design the exhibit, something trainers and zookeepers rarely (if ever) get to do. You typically have substantial clout and input when it comes to animal care, as well as their long and short term goals (again, rare for other animal care professionals). You work a lot independently and are usually behind the scenes, avoiding the dreaded strollers. Your typical interactions with aquarium/zoo guests are when you are cleaning a tank and hear them scream on the other side, “Oh, look! It’s a Hand Fish! Look, Little Susie, it’s a Handfish!” or “Gee, I wonder what kind of fish that is? A Diver Fish?” Hilarious and original. Truly. I am filled with mirth.
ha. ha. ha.
Back to the fun stuff. You learn how to raise the food of the animals you care for, hatching out brine shrimp and putting that childhood sea monkey care experience into play. You get to watch jawfish dig out their dens and mouth brood. You get the joy of feeding sharks and sawfish (coolest task EVER). You sometimes get to go fishing or go collecting, which entails scuba diving while getting paid. You may even get to sit at the bottom of your exhibit, if it is large enough, look up and just watch as all the animals swim around you. There is nothing more soothing or calming than that. Then, when you are bursting at the seams with joy and knowledge you truly lose your marbles and decide to set up a tank at home. Don’t fall into this trap, fellow aquarists. The home saltwater tank is a siren song that is best ignored.
Finally, my little think piece brings us to the most vital component of being an aquarist. They are the true double-edged sword to this career, destined to be your defenders or your downfall; your coworkers and colleagues. Now, I have stated before that zoo/aquarium folk are some of the best human beings on the planet and aquarists are no exception. They’re smart, creative, and some of the hardest workers I have ever had the pleasure of knowing. To lend some perspective to what it is like to work with aquarists, I have often heard in conversation the hypothesis that animal care personnel have a tendency to acquire the traits of the animals they care for. We gravitate towards our “spirit animal”, if you will. So, considering that aquarists are usually shark fanatics that should give you some insight. Your team is only as strong as the weakest link so if you are the weak (lazy) link? If you are the one that continually screws up the finer details? We smell blood. I just listed some cornerstones of the tasks we face every day and having a team member that attracts predators (your curators) because of their inadequate work performance… well… they have to go. Aquarists will tell you exactly how they feel, why they feel that way, and what you did to get them there. They have a very low threshold for bullshit and an even lower one for poor productivity. In a nutshell, they are my kind of people!
Not to say your aquarium coworkers can’t be your champions, they absolutely can. Everyone has an off day or morning and, if you pull your weight on a regular basis, aquarists will be right there to take up the slack without batting an eyelash. We also tend to form a school when one of us is in trouble, developing a mass amnesia event and identical blank stares. They have saved my bacon more than once over the years and I have also saved theirs. However, this is only if you have proven yourself to be an ally and hard worker. If you like to call-in to work sick a lot, always complain, say “Ewwww!!” at everything you touch, take three times as long as others to complete tasks, and just “forget” to take temperatures and salinities in the morning? Did you seriously just add tap water to that system instead of RO (distilled) water? You are on your own and may the odds be ever in your favor.
Being an aquarist has been one of my favorite job titles. I worked with my favorite animals, was able to take part in sea turtle rescue and rehab, and I was able to play with seahorses. Is it for the faint of heart? No. But it is challenging, worthwhile, and fulfilling work that I loved every moment of. I am a more capable person because of my aquarist experiences and I now have an even healthier respect for electricity. If you have the opportunity and the stomach for a mouthful of foul water, give it a try. I promise you, you won’t regret it. Did I mention there are seahorses?
Hugs and Fishes, ya’ll!