Sunday, August 17, 2014

'Till Next Time, Fishes.

Hello my fellow vertebrates!  It is with the greatest amount of sadness that I share I have finished my internship at the Newport Aquarium. An incredible experience, I do not have the words to describe just how thankful I am to have been given this opportunity.

 My last few days were spent doing a lot of things. There was a lot of the usual window cleaning and house-keeping, but I also had to spend a day in the Water Quality Lab. While I was only in there for a couple hours, I learned a lot about all of the chemistry that goes into running and sustaining aquariums; making sure certain tanks have appropriate pH levels, salinity, and monitoring the presence of nitrates. Even though the people in the water lab aren’t responsible for particular animals, they’re responsible for EVERYTHING else. They make sure the animals have a place that they can live in! And that’s a lot of work! I acquired a new level of respect for those biologists, for I admit that I didn’t understand just how much they did and were responsible for in the aquarium.

One of the days I was there, the aquarium had scheduled a time for some of the biologists to meet and give a presentation about the shark ray pups that were born earlier this year. A lot of questions have recently been re-visited about what happened to the pups and why things didn’t go the way people expected them to. While the presentation was intended for the workers and volunteers of the aquarium, it was given out of importance for the certainty of correct information to share with the public. Haz and Jolene, as well as one of the head people of the husbandry department, gave this presentation. It wasn’t a very long presentation, but it was very, very informative. Given in a “semi-scientific, professional” format, they talked about everything from the rarity of shark rays to the complications after the birth of all seven of them. I’m not going to go over every single thing they discussed, but if you’re interested, feel free to ask me! Shark rays are incredibly rare in the wild, which leaves us so little information about them, and makes them a [quite] mysterious responsibility to an aquarium. The Newport Aquarium was the first aquarium to successfully have FOUR shark rays, and also have a successful breeding program. So why did the pups die? Because shark rays pups have never before been bred, birthed, and cared for in captivity. Newport tried all sorts of ways to try and care for their new babies, but ultimately deemed unsuccessful, first time around. They were under CONSTANT care, non-stop from day one until the last pup died. Weights, diets, activity levels, and general observation of the pups was constantly being taken and recorded, in order to try and find out what the shark rays needed the most. While this attempt was unsuccessful in resulting in a surviving pup, it was extraordinarily successful in groundbreaking information; obtaining information that has never been done before! And hopefully soon, the aquarium will be able to successfully present more shark ray pups to the world.

Scratches from a sea turtle. Who knew THAT was possible?
I’ve ripped heads off of shrimp (dead, frozen ones), stuffed lobsters with vitamins, ripped frog leg muscles off of the bones, and squeezed juice out of a handful of krill. I’ve been splashed by a shark ray, scratched by a sea turtle, smashed by a magnet, and stepped on by a crab. I’ve learned that people skills are just as good to have as animal skills, and that being organized is one of the best practices you should have. I’ve also learned to never ignore the idea of writing your name with a Sharpie on anything that’s yours. I’ve seen my mentor wrestle an albino alligator, and I carried said alligator to a truck (don’t worry, it was in a box). I’ve fed the most venomous fish known to man, I’ve seen one of the largest captive alligators swallow a chicken whole, and I’ve been spit on by a fish. I’ve scraped salt off of floors and ceilings, and I’ve cleaned lobster antennas out of a sink.

Although my time at the aquarium was short, I learned and witnessed so much, it makes me look forward to being in this working world, but also for other people that enjoy this career as much as I, to experience these things as well. The biggest thing I learned? Never expect a strict schedule. Just like human health, the animal world is unpredictable, and things happen. Fish get sick, animals die, water salinities change, life support systems malfunction or need tuning. The hardest part of this job? You can’t communicate with the animals; they can’t speak for themselves. They can’t tell you “hey, I’m not feeling too good. I think I’m getting sick.” Sometimes you have to make decisions that you don’t want to make, and no matter the amount of experience you have, difficulties are ever present. This kind of job can’t really be a part-time effort, simply because you won’t understand what a strange behavior is in your animals if you only see them a couple times a week. The animals need to get to know you just as much as you need to get to know them. Yes, they are wild animals, which is REALLY important to remember, but familiarity is better for them. Biologists and zoo keepers don’t get near enough the amount of attention, or a salary, as I think they deserve, simply because they do all sorts of things. I’m not saying they don’t get paid enough because I hope to be a biologist one day. I’m saying it because, like moms, they are multiple things in one. They’re researchers, record keepers, veterinarians, chefs, maintenance keepers; they’re all sorts of busy and occupied.

I’ve enjoyed my summer, and I would like to thank everyone for your support and encouragement. Your words of praise and congratulations warm my heart, and your questions and exclamations of excitement for me really make me believe in myself. So, once again, thanks so much for everything my loved ones have done for me. I know I wouldn’t be writing these blogs if it wasn’t for you!!

P.S.  Of course there’s no way that I can post every experience or picture on this blog. Sharing is caring, so if you ever want to talk to me about this or have any questions about what I study or do, just ask! Science is wonderful, and I won’t turn down an invitation to talk about it!          -Jill :)