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The First Day of Aquarist-Assistant Training

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The Nautilus

The First Day of Aquarist-Assistant Training

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About a month ago, Bobby and I were accepted at the National Aquarium in Baltimore as aquarist assistants. It is an unpaid position requiring at least one four-hour shift every other week, so it is not a huge workload, but it is a foot in the door of a field in which we both hope to eventually work.

Yesterday, we had our first day of training.

The day started with a brief gallery tour. Because we were taking the tour before the aquarium opened to the public, the aquarium felt so much smaller than usual, when you're packed elbow to elbow with people. We started at the top galleries and worked our way down through the Atlantic coral reef and the shark tank, then the ray tray. Then we worked back up the next two floors and the galleries there. We didn't tour the Amazon rainforest or Australia; those will be for later dates, I assume.

Our tour guide was one of the divers, so it was interesting the insights he could give on the different animals, having worked closely with them while diving.

Then it was back to the auditorium for a day's worth of lectures. I had worried that training--the first day at least--would be mostly concerned with rules and regulations: wear this kind of trousers, do this, don't do that, come in here, exit there, blah blah blah. However, we jumped right into studying the animals, which was cool.

The lectures started with bony fishes. I will admit that I nodded off a little towards the end of this one; it was early in the morning, coming off of an exhausting week. And the lecture concerned itself mostly with being able to look at a fish and interpret its behavior based on the shape of its mouth, body, and fins. Because we were grouped also with the new exhibit guides, this part of the lecture was aimed mostly towards them, since they will frequently be asked, "What kind of fish is that?" and might not necessarily know the exact species but should be able to tell the guest something about the fish. It wasn't really applicable to us, as behind-the-scenes staff, and most of it is intuitive to one who has studied animals in any sort of detail before.

Luckily we were given a break between lectures, so I could get a cup of coffee and stretch my legs. (It is also the situation in most lecture halls that they have zero leg-room, so I couldn't even stretch out enough to get the energy flowing that way.) The second lecture was on cartilaginous fish--sharks, rays, and skates--and was much more interesting than the first.

There is a certain allure to sharks, I think. Even if one accepts the reality--versus the myths--of sharks, they are fascinating and mysterious creatures. Much of the lecture, of course, was devoted to debunking common myths about sharks. "Sharks are dangerous!" is naturally the biggest. Sharks are dangerous in the sense that any wild animal is dangerous, but sharks don't eat humans. As the lecturer pointed out, it takes the shark more energy to attack and digest a human than a human has caloric content. They generally attack animals high in fat and calories, like seals and certain kinds of fish. Most shark attacks are "bump and run": The shark mistakes the person for something tastier and more nutritious, takes a bite, spits it out, and swims away. Of course, this can be fatal. But sharks are hardly "maneaters." In shark attacks, one never hears of the shark actually eating the person it has attacked.

Perhaps most interesting to me, as a former student of biopsychology, was the segment on shark sensation and perception. This is also prone to myths and misunderstandings over the years. Sharks sense prey by gradually honing in using keener and keener senses. They start with sensing the sound and vibrations of struggling prey using their ears and the lateral line. This gives them a general direction in which to move. Using their sense of smell, which is very good, they hone in further using the scent of blood and fluids. (The lecturer gave the fact that sharks can smell a single drop of tuna juice in a bathtub full of water.) Once they are in the vicinity, they use their eyes to see the prey and give chase. A common misconception is that sharks are blind or cannot see well; recent studies have proven this false, showing that they not only see well but in color and in the dark as well. However, because sharks cannot close their eyes, as they move in to attack, they either roll their eyes back or cover their eyes with the nicitating membrane ("third eyelid") to protect themselves. How, then, it was asked, do they know where to bite? They have organs in their faces that sense minute electrical charges, the sort that are put off by the heart and neurons in a living organism. They use this strange sense to make the final moves to attack. (This also explains why sharks will often swallow metal objects, as they mistake the small charges coming from these objects as the charges coming from a living organism.)

Of course, because the mission of the Aquarium is one of conservation, we talked about shark conservation.

An average of four people are killed every year in shark attacks.

An average of one million sharks are killed each day by human beings.

Sharks are prized for their fins and--recently--taking shark-cartilage supplements has been touted as a cancer prevention. (It is not, and if anyone wants to know more about why, please let me know, but I'm not trying to write a novel here!) In addition, sharks are unable to sense many fishing nets until they are caught. Sharks do not have fins that allow them to swim backward, so once they are caught, they are caught. Most sharks must keep swimming in order to keep their blood pressures up; once they stop swimming, their blood pressures drop, and they die.

Why are sharks important? Sitting at the top of the food chain, they play a fundamental role in ocean ecology. Beyond that, we still have much to learn why sharks do not seem to develop tumors and cancers to the degree that other fish and humans do. There are chemicals responsible for that, it is believed, but we have not been able to isolate or synthesize them, and once we lose the sharks...well, we lose this valuable research too.

After the shark lecture, we had a lunch break, then it was time for the lecture on Invertebrates. I like Invertebrates. In high school, I took a marine biology course, and I remember the teacher's words to us on the first day: "If you're here to learn about dolphins, you're in the wrong place. We won't even spend a day on whales and dolphins but mostly invertebrates."

Through that class, I learned more about invertebrates than I'd ever thought I'd know. And I learned to love these critters so different from us and utterly fascinating.

We first discussed Cnidarians--a phylum that includes anemones, jellyfish, and other stinging-cell organisms--which has always been perhaps my favorite. We didn't go into the depth that I'd learned before, but it was an interesting review, since it's been years since I'd last seen this material.

Next, it was Arthropods. Being Marylands, we talked about blue crabs, of course. We also talked about horseshoe crabs, which are animals that I see all the time at the shore and that seem to be as ensnared in harmful myths as sharks. It is believed that they attack with their tails, that they are poisonous, that they will bite...none of these things are true. And like sharks, they are important to humans and yet suffering for human folly. A chemical used to test for the presence of gram-negative bacteria in vaccines and other human medicines is based on horseshoe crab blood. Again, it cannot be synthesized in the lab. Horseshoes crabs are collected, blood drawn like human blood donors, the crabs are tagged, and released back into the wild.

(Incidentally, horseshoe crabs are more closely related to spiders than to crabs, which was not new to me, but the lecturer made the excellent point that if you show someone something of that size and call it a spider, they're likely to run away screaming!)

We finished invertebrates with Mollucks and Echinoderms (starfish and the like), then did a short lecture on coral reefs. By now, our day was nearly over, so we behind-the-scenes people were dismissed to watch a program on zoonotic diseases--that is, diseases that can spread between animals and humans. Obviously, in an environment where we'll be in close contact with a variety of exotic animals, it is an important issue. Most of it was common sense, though. Keep the animals and their environments as clean as possible. Wash your hands. Keep the animals healthy. The majority of the diseases weren't found in aquatic environments either, so while it's something important to hear, it's not something I really worry about.

Lastly, we met with the aquarist assistant volunteer director, Jaime, who was also the woman who interviewed me. She took us on a tour of her gallery, behind the scenes. It was odd to think that on the other side of the wall were hundreds of people oohing and aahing over the fish in the tanks we were peering into, and they were utterly unaware of us on the other side. We went into the big walk-in refrigerator, which was reminiscent of my days cooking at The Piece, and got to see all the different sorts of food, much of which was what people eat. The tour was quick, and we were dismissed for the day.

I think that I'm going to like this a lot. Sitting through the lectures made me itch to be back in school, studying this stuff for real. We have three more classes left as well as four apprenticeship sessions, then we'll be working. I wasn't sure how I would like training--large organizations have a tendency to bog down training with bureaucratic and administrative minutia--but everyone there seems to be on the same page as I am: treat that stuff in an offhand, need-to-know manner and get busy with the animals! And it was really refreshing to be in a place where my beliefs about conservation and human obligations to our planet were echoed by pretty much everyone.

Yes, I think I'll be happy here.
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