This is the question that has haunted me since I decided I wanted to study zoology. For years I answered people with the same pre-recorded spiel that everyone in my class has engrained in their brains, “not all zoologists work in zoos, there are so many options – conservation programmes, research, academia, post-grad veterinary medicine” and so on. It was only when I started the final year of my degree that I realised I hadn’t actually answered the question – where was I going to work? It was during an in-situ management lecture that I realised what had been in front of me the entire time. The infamous question was put to our class again by our lecturer, but the key difference was that it was rephrased. It wasn’t the presumptuous statement that we were used to, he genuinely wanted to know if anyone in the class was interested in animal husbandry and it hit me, I was. Fast forward to the middle of my final exams and I had been accepted onto a husbandry internship as an aquarist.
So here I am, 3 months in and my only regret is that I didn’t realise this is what I wanted to do sooner. I love my work, my smelly, dirty, exhausting work. Now there’s a new question – what does an aquarist do? Being an aquarist means being a chef, waiter, cleaner, gardener, chemist, doctor and target of water fights. As an intern I’m not authorised to carry out any treatments or water chemistry resets, but I’ve got plenty of other jobs to keep me busy.
Mornings are usually the busiest as there are certain jobs that have to be completed before the aquarium opens to the public. Tanks need to have their water changed, filtration systems cleaned, any algal build up has to be removed, tank glass cleaned and gravel must be cleaned and raked. Water temperatures must be checked daily as well as salinity and levels of dissolved oxygen. We have the luxury of being located on the water’s edge as we can pump the salt water we need directly in from the sea. Inland aquariums need to make their own salt water, a delicate process getting the balance right. Though not the most glamorous of work, I do look forward to it because I get to don waders and hop in with our red-bellied piranha to clean their tank. Alongside these tasks the day’s food also needs to be prepared, this is where a strong stomach comes in handy. The food used varies depending on the animals being fed and is changed from day to day so the animals have some variety. Not only that, but some animals are fussy about what they eat; certain types of fish or vegetable are preferred and even certain parts of the fish are preferred.
Now, the fun part – feeding time. There is a different feeding routine for each tank in the centre. Some tanks have their food scattered in, others are target fed to ensure each individual gets their share and others must complete challenges to get their food.
Our 4 cownose ray – Beth, Derek, Daisy and Tim – are each target fed and then scatter fed twice a day, usually a pleasant experience except when our coral cat sharks take it upon themselves to steal food off the stick which is sometimes half their size. Mondays are mackerel days and the rays can get very excited, especially our common Atlantic stingray, Ali. Ali will lurk in the shadows of the seaweed and spring up in a surprise attack, soaking me from head to toe until I feed her. All fun aside, target feeding is important as it allows us to deliver nutrient supplements and oral medications to specific animals without causing them the unnecessary stress of removing them from their tank for treatment.
Always a crowd-pleaser is our young common octopus, yet to be named by the public, though I call her Spot. Spot gets her food in a different game each day; twist-top containers, building block houses and hamster mazes. A record is kept of the method used each day so we can make sure she gets a different one everyday so she doesn’t get bored. She also gets daily playtime with water fights, tug of war, rattles and mechanical swimming fish.
So where to next in my animal husbandry adventure? As much as I love where I am now, I can’t survive as an unpaid intern forever. I plan to head abroad where there are more opportunities in this field and expand my experience to include creatures living on land. I am currently looking up leads in Canada where I aim to head in the New Year, hopefully it won’t be too long before I’ve another post detailing my experiences with the new animals in my life!