In July 2020, fresh off the back of the first UK lockdown, I took my first step into the conservation sector (those of you who know me, will know how pumped I was for this!) and I started my new position of Junior Aquarist at Blue Reef Aquarium, Hastings.
Since then, it has been a steep learning curve, but also a wonderful one. I wanted share with you some of the things that I get up to at the Aquarium. It’s really interesting, so if you are an aspiring animal keeper or just an animal lover, there will be something to interest you I am sure.
So, what is my daily routine?
There are some things that I do every day that maintain the enclosures and tanks within the aquarium.
So… quick side note – yes, it is an aquarium, but we don’t just have fish! I work with a range of creatures including:
- Marine fish
- Fresh water fish
- Sea Cucumber/Rockpool species
- Insects/Small invertebrates
So – back to my daily activities! Let’s start with feeding – everything needs food of varying quantities, timings, and type. We have charts up in our ‘sea-lab’ to show who eats what and when – this is a lifesaver for me! The longer I do it, the more I know off the top of my head, but with so many mouths to feed – it’s great to have a reference! For the fish, we have small feeds which tend to be varying sizes of shrimp or similar. Then we have the large feed which ranges from chopped fish, to fillets, to whole fish for the sharks, etc. It’s quite straightforward really. Then for the other animals that we look after we have fruit, veg and a range of protein items, including rodents and insects. The animals get fed throughout the day, which keeps us busy but the animals full, happy, and fulfilled.
Now we need to make sure that the enclosures are in tip-top shape. For the fish tanks, this includes turning over the substrate and wiping down the glass (inside for algae, outside for the sticky handprints of enthusiastic children!). Sometimes this will be a quick clean, sometimes we do a deep clean which means we take everything out that makes the tank interesting – think rocks, plants, fake coral, etc. Then we give it all a good scrub and return it back, and we can also do water changes to ensure that the chemical levels remain correct in the tanks. This is really satisfying, if a sure-fire way to get a little soggy.
For those non-water species that live in our ‘Jungle Room’, we spot-clean the enclosures daily. Which means picking up any leftover food, any poop (!!), putting branches/theming back if they’ve been knocked over, refilling and cleaning water sources, checking lighting, etc.
We then we need to check that the environments are appropriate for each different species. This means visiting all the water tanks and checking their temperature and also their salinity levels (for marine species), then we can make any adjustments that might be needed to keep the animals happy and healthy. If there are any concerns surrounding a specific tank – we may do these measurements more than once a day, plus there are other tests we can do to measure pH levels, anomia levels, etc. For any individuals we are worried about then we have quarantine tanks we can utilise.
For the jungle species we take measurements of the atmospheric temperatures within the enclosures and also the humidity levels for each species. This ensures that the species who are cold-blooded can continue to thrive on the breezy coast of the UK! Again, if there is an issue then we can make adjustments, and check the heat lamps, etc. We can also use these measurements to explain unusual behaviour or to work with the natural cycles of the species, e.g., our snakes often wind-down in winter, so this can be worked with inside their enclosures to ensure they stay healthy during this time.
A large part (and one of my favourite parts) of my job is doing public talks about the species within the aquarium. I currently do 2 different official talks – one about our ‘Ocean Tank’ which is home to a variety of species, including sharks, rays and fish, and the other is about our ‘Archerfish Tank’ which are a species of fish who shoot down their pray using a water jet process, which is pretty fab to watch! However, there are so many other species that I’d love to talk about, and we will introduce more talks as the COVID restrictions lift. These talks include feeding our octopus, and doing reptile encounters. I also conduct the school tours for Primary school age children – this is fun but exhausting! A big hats off to teachers who deal with that level of energy everyday! This is part of my job that really keeps me on my toes, as you never know what children are going to ask but I love being a part of instilling a passion for the natural world and slipping in a few conservation messages along the way!
Working with animals is incredibly rewarding, however, it can also be sad when you lose an animal – for whatever reason. When an animal is ill, it is worrying for all of us in the animal team, but there are certain things we can do to try and get to the bottom of what is wrong, including monitoring behaviour and taking skin scrapes – and there is always a vet we can call in if more detailed medical attention is needed. However, inevitably, sometimes there isn’t much we can do and the animal dies or the decision is made to euthanise the individual. When we undertake a post-mortem, we take samples from throughout the individual and send these off to a lab who can tell us more about the situation surrounding the death. It is not a nice part of the job, as you come to know the individuals in your care, and it’s hard to say goodbye – however, it can be interesting to see the biology of a species. Plus, this hard part of the job is vastly outweighed by all the joy that the animals bring day-to-day.
When working with animals, watching and understanding their individual and species’ behaviours is important to ensuring that you know when something may be wrong. Working with animals, you soon realise that they all have different personalities – yes, even fish!! Some are nervous and will avoid you, some will actively seek you out, some are friendly, some are sassy! And they all have their routines that they like to spend their days doing, so therefore you can start to anticipate where in their enclosure or tank they might be, when they are expecting food, and when might be the best time to do enrichment, or to administer additional care or cleaning with minimal disruption.
Animal enrichment is another aspect of my work that I love. The species that we focus a lot of our enrichment on is our Giant Pacific Octopus. Until recently (RIP), we had a lovely GPO called Baxter who was very intelligent and needed stimulation to ensure that he remained happy and healthy – which he did! Living a long and happy life. His enrichment included contact with the aquarists, different foods, and different techniques to give the food – e.g., inside a hamster ball, inside a lunchbox – essentially puzzles that kept his brain and many arms busy! He was also the subject of some research from a university student who gave him lots of enrichment and excitement for the duration of her project.
We also have a Tegu – which is a type of large lizard – who I want to introduce some enrichment for. We need to habituate him to humans in order to safely engage him, but this is something that we are hopeful we may be able to achieve. I sometimes put a t-shirt of mine in his enclosure to stimulate his senses and get him used to human scent, but this is all very much in the first stages.
Being an aquarist is a great job, there are good days and bad days – as there are with all jobs, but for me the good hugely outweighs the bad. There is great career progression within the aquarist career ladder – whether you want to keep working as an aquarist or move into display management, etc. but there are also lots of other things that you could go on to do, including lab work and charity work, to name a few. I hope to take what I learn here in this role to move forward in the conservation sector and to keep communicating the environmental and conservation issues that are at the forefront of modern life – this is a great steppingstone into the conservation sector. Plus, it has been a lifeline for me throughout the COVID-19 lockdowns, giving me somewhere to go and some nature therapy when the world outside was a little overwhelming.
A note on animals in captivity: There is obviously controversy surrounding animals in captivity, and rightly so. We all watched Tiger King and Seaspiracy during lockdown and the regulations for keeping animals are clearly more stringent in some areas than others. There are definitely problems with having animals in captivity, and in an ideal world, they wouldn’t be. However, we all know that this isn’t an ideal world. If organisations and institutions adhere to strict regulations around animal welfare and research, then keeping animals in captivity can be useful in conservation and the education of the general public. This is something I am most certainly learning about as an aquarist and something that I will take with me throughout my career in the conservation sector to try and refine and improve. Through acknowledging the good with the bad, we can ensure that animals are being treated well and used wisely, and effectively, as both species’ and ecosystem ambassadors. They do belong in the wild but, right now, there are minimal safe, wild places for them to be.
2022 Update: In mid-December 2022, I finished my time working at the aquarium to pursue a new opportunity in science communications at a global plant conservation charity. It was a hard decision to leave, I loved my work there and I was finding ways to introduce more conservation and environmental focuses into the attraction, however, there is so much more I want to achieve and, long-term, I think I can bring about more significant change by climbing the science communication career ladder. I am hoping to still be involved with life at the aquarium, and continue to try and improve their conservation/environmental educational output through volunteering for science communications. I have loved learning about marine conservation and it is something that I am not going to completely forget about moving forward. However, now I need to learn about botany and plant conservation – so I am going to dive right in!
You can learn more about the conservation value of zoos and aquaria by listening to my upcoming podcast which talks to various professionals within the sector to explore what is done well and what can be improved to help contribute to global conservation efforts. Listen to the trailer now: https://spotifyanchor-web.app.link/e/AU00H8JeQvb