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The Nautilus

On Interesting Job Hazards and Smelling of Fish...the First Two Aquarist Apprenticeships

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The Nautilus

On Interesting Job Hazards and Smelling of Fish...the First Two Aquarist Apprenticeships

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On Saturday and Sunday, I had my first two apprenticeships as an aquarist assistant. Because I am a weekend volunteer, scheduling these has been difficult. There are nine aquarists, and they take turns covering weekends, so any single aquarist only works every four or five weekends. My aquarist, Keri, was on vacation for much of December, so this was her first weekend of coverage.

Because there are only two aquarists on the weekends doing the jobs of nine, weekend shifts are notoriously interesting...and in need of volunteers. Therefore, I found myself in more places than my assigned gallery, but that in itself was cool.

Keri's gallery is "Fourth Floor" and includes the kelp forest, Pacific coral reef, the Amazon river forest, and the two tanks in the upland rainforest on the fifth floor. The kelp forest, reef, and upland rainforest are all smallish tanks with a variety of fish, but the Amazon river forest (abbreviated ARF) is a massive spread of five different enclosures that include a variety of fish, reptiles, and small mammals in both terrestrial and aquatic environments.

Saturday morning, I arrived at 9 a.m. to wait for Keri in the security bay. I was waiting for no more than five minutes when she appeared, carrying a big hook, a contraption on a long pole, and a bucket of fish. We took the elevator up to leave my coat and purse in her office and then went back downstairs to feed the zebra shark in the ray tray. The ray tray is the huge central exhibit that used to house dolphins, then beluga whales, and now is home to several dozen stingrays, a three-flippered sea turtle named Calypso, and a zebra shark named Zoe. The ray tray is fed by the divers, and Zoe had been harassing them lately: not biting but bumping into them and generally making a pest of herself. Zoe is blind because she'd once been in a tank with butterfly fish, and they had nibbled out her eyes, disgustingly enough. So the aquarists decided that it was time to start pole-feeding Zoe so that (hopefully) she'd leave the divers alone.

So that was our first order of business on Saturday. They were trying to train her to respond to a clicker held just on the surface of the water, so I operated the clicker while Keri dangled a fish on the end of her metal hooks. Because sharks have a keen electromagnetic sense, they are highly sensitive to metal objects (which is also why license plates and tin cans are found in the stomachs). The clicker told her that it was time to eat; the scent of the fish and sense of the metal pole let her hone in on her breakfast. Unfortunately, Zoe is laying eggs, so she hasn't been in the mood to eat, so we really had to fight to get her to respond and take the fish but--eventually--she got three good-sized ones, and Keri said that was enough.

On Saturday, I did the rounds with another experienced assistant so that Keri could run around like a nut and take care of other things. Kara--the other assistant--and I went through the morning feedings. The first thing that we did before Keri ran off was to feed "ARF-A": that is, section A of the Amazon river forest. ARF-A is interesting because it requires staff to use the buddy system at all times when working in the exhibit. Why? Because it houses a sixteen-foot (5.3 meter) anaconda.

So one person goes in and "spots" the snake by keeping an eye on where her head is at all times. Anacondas are not venomous, but they are constrictors who kill their prey by wrapping around them and squeezing. Our anaconda is pretty docile, though she did snap at one of the male aquarists once. The Aquarium's biggest fear is that she might get a hold of someone, drag them into the water portion of the exhibit, and drown the person. Talk about workplace hazards!

Keri spotted the snake while Kara and I went about feeding the fish. Needless to say, we worked as quickly as we could!

The ARF is water at the front with rocks and land at the back with a path hidden from the public. It is filled with plants and "mists" every few minutes. It is very hot and humid and dirty. We went into ARF B and C next, which are separate tanks but connected on the land portion. The water is separated because C contains a number of caimains, small South American alligators. The largest is about three feet (1 m) long, and they don't bother anyone but do get curious and occasionally crawl up on the path.

But worse than the anaconda and the caimans is the partition between B and C that must be climbed over. Not only is it fairly high--between waist- and chest-height--but it is soaking wet and slippery. 90% of the mud and dirt that I get on me at NAiB comes from scrambling over that obstacle.

As before, we fed the fish and cleaned the skimmers and were out of there. It is a hot, humid, and yucky exhibit to remain inside of for long. Luckily, ARF-D shows the flooded forest and is accessed from the top like a normal tank, and the fifth ARF enclosure is the forest during the dry season and has no fish, so it is cared for by the herpetologists.

Kara and I then went about feeding the kelp forest and reef exhibits. The kelp forest has a huge sheephead fish that both Kara and Keri described as a jerk because he has to be handfed fish, and he splashes anyone who tries to feed him. (I got a mouthful of saltwater on Sunday thanks to him.) Then it was off to prep food for the afternoon feeding, and the process was repeated again. We fed ARF B, C, and D and also the tanks in the upland rainforest. By now, the Aquarium was open, and when we fed the piranhas cut-up pieces of fish, that was popular! We got back together with Keri and fed ARF-A while she spotted the anaconda.

There was a bit of excitement at NAiB on Saturday. One of the pelagic stingrays prolapsed a section of her reproductive tract. It looked like a fist-sized ball of bright red tissue on her underside, and the Aquarium was so crowded that they could not remove her until the public had left. Luckily, the veterinarians were able to get the tissue stuck back up inside of her without surgery, and she was doing fine when I left on Sunday. Poor Keri, though, was at the Aquarium until nine o'clock that night and had to be in first thing Sunday morning as well.

Sunday, I came in an hour earlier and followed Keri for the day. We started with the morning feeding, getting one of the rainforest herpetologists to spot the anaconda while we did the morning feeding in ARF-A. We did all of the feedings, and I followed her down while she briefed the divers, which was cool. Someday, I'll be sitting among them. A bunch of new fish were added to the Atlantic coral reef exhibit, and the divers' food prep procedure has completely changed as a result, and they were not happy about that. We went off next and did afternoon food prep, and Keri wished out loud that I could come in on Monday, Wednesday, or Friday when they do big feedings since I chopped fish so fast. At least my years in foodservice are good for something!

The jerk in the kelp forest gave me a face full of saltwater when Keri was handfeeding him capelin, and a caiman decided to crawl up  in ARF-C to see what the two goofy humans were doing. Keri started jumping up and down and yelling at him to try to scare him away, and just then, he got caught in a current from one of the jets and just blew away in the water. I said, "Wow, does that work?" and Keri sheepishly admitted, "Well...I think he got caught in a current. But it looked cool, didn't it?"

Of course, he crawled right back up, despite Keri repeatedly informing him that he was annoying and that if he didn't leave us alone, he was going to get blown away by another current. He didn't exactly listen.

The public was also treated to the sight of me rather gracelessly attempting to climb the wall between B and C and falling onto the other side, covered in water and mud. When we came out again, a man informed us, "Hey, you two were just in there!" I'd imagine that--to the general public--getting to crawl around in the Aquarium exhibits is pretty cool.

What the heck am I saying? I still think it's pretty cool!

It's well worth having my hands smell like fish and seawater for the better part of the day!
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