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11 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Aquariums

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Earth is nicknamed “the blue planet” for a reason—lakes, rivers, and oceans cover around 71 percent of its surface. Aquariums help us connect with these watery environments, but looking after the creatures that live in these places isn’t always easy. On any given day, the people who take care of water-dwelling animals and plants for a living—they’re known as aquarists—might be asked to swim with sharks, train sea lions, or poke a gassy sea horse.

1. THE JOB MARKET IS INCREDIBLY COMPETITIVE.

Like zoos, aquariums get loads of applications whenever an animal care position opens. Therefore, vacancies tend to be filled in short order. “It’s a very, very competitive field,” says Paige Stuart, an aquarist at the Greater Cleveland Aquarium. “Basically everybody wants to do this, so you have to try to get ahead of the game as much as you can.” As a rule, aquariums will expect all applicants to have a degree in biology or a related field. Stuart adds that, on top of this, “You definitely have to be scuba-certified.”

But satisfying those two requirements still might not be enough to get you hired. “It’s harder to get a job without first having a lot of experience,” Sally*, who works at a zoo in the southeastern U.S., notes. “You need the degree, but it’s the experience that’s going to make you better at your job and what will ultimately get you the job in the first place.”

To boost your credentials, Sally recommends volunteering or interning at a local aquarium, zoo, or animal shelter. Applying to pet stores, she adds, might also be a good idea: “They’ll help you get to know the practical side of things, the actual application of your book knowledge.”

2. OCTOPUSES CAN CAUSE MAYHEM.

Never underestimate those cephalopods. In 2008, an octopus at one German aquarium deliberately short-circuited the lamp above his tank by squirting a jet of water at the fixture. Not to be outdone, an octopus at the Santa Monica Pier aquarium caused a minor flood the next year. After the creature loosened a water-control valve that fed into its own filtration system, 200 gallons of seawater poured out onto the surrounding floor. And last April, yet another octopus pulled off a spectacular escape worthy of Steve McQueen. Staffers at the New Zealand National Aquarium were dumbfounded to discover that their octopus named Inky had crawled out of his tank and squeezed into a six-inch-wide drain. Where did this exit lead? Directly into the Pacific Ocean.

3. IF YOU WANT TO BE AN AQUARIST, BRUSH UP ON YOUR PLUMBING SKILLS.

“Believe me, you need to know a lot about plumbing for this job,” Vickie Sawyer, an aquarist at Norwalk’s Maritime Aquarium, observes. Those who work with captive fish and marine animals deal with all manner of filters, valves, and pumps, and the bigger the aquarium, the more elaborate the plumbing. Consider, for instance, the world-famous Georgia Aquarium, which utilizes an expansive network of filtration systems that distributes 10 million gallons of water throughout the facility. To keep things running smoothly, a Life Support System (LSS) team oversees some 225 individual pumps. These highly trained employees are also responsible for monitoring the water temperature and pH level in each tank, among other things.

4. GASSY SEA HORSES MAY BENEFIT FROM A GENTLE POKING SESSION.

As most people know, it’s the male seahorse that gives birth. A special pouch on his stomach makes this amazing feat possible. When these fish mate, the females deposit their eggs into the pouch. Ten to 25 days later, as many as 2000 babies will come shooting out of this receptacle. Sally tells us that the unusual breeding process makes male sea horses susceptible to an odd medical problem: Excessive gas sometimes accumulates inside of their pouches. To deal with this, an aquarist will need to gently grasp an afflicted male, keeping him just below the water’s surface. Then, Sally explains, careful pressure should be applied to his midsection with a blunt, stick-shaped object (e.g., a plastic pipette). If all goes well, the gas will be released in the form of harmless bubbles.

5. CAPTIVE SEALS GET RESTAURANT-QUALITY CUISINE.

Every fish that’s given to a seal or sea lion has to be rigorously inspected for quality and health. “We check their eyes, their bodies, and press their stomachs to make sure they aren’t too soft,” Sawyer says. According to Sally, if even a single scale is out of place, the fish can’t be used. “There are a lot of really strict regulations on marine-mammal keeping,” she says. “I used to work with seals and when I did, I spent 90 percent of my time in the kitchen, making sure the fish were perfect. If any little scale was missing, that could mean that some parasite had gotten inside the fish.” When all’s said and done, the potential entrée has to be a restaurant-quality specimen.

6. PLEASE REMEMBER THAT A “TOUCH TANK” IS NOT A PLAYGROUND.

So-called “touch tanks” are roofless enclosures that allow guests to reach down and actually touch a small menagerie of aquatic animals. Given the hands-on appeal, such exhibits are quite popular—especially with kids. Unfortunately, visitors sometimes get a little too rough with the display creatures. In order to keep their creatures from getting injured or stressed, aquariums will often enforce a strict “two-finger touch” policy (rather than using the whole hand). It’s also common practice to ask all guests to wash their hands before they approach the tank.

7. TRAINING A MARINE MAMMAL IS A VERY TIME-CONSUMING PROCESS.

In the words of biologist Toni Loschiavo, “There’s a lot of time, there’s a lot of patience, there’s a lot of care that goes into each animal that you see performing in a show.” An assistant curator at the Mystic Aquarium in eastern Connecticut, Loschiavo helps manage the facility’s Maritime Theater, where trained sea lions dazzle crowds several times a day. Experience has taught her that even the most basic marine mammal stunts are the fruit of some intense labor. For instance, she claims that teaching a pinniped (seal or sea lion) just to lift its flipper on command is a process that can take more than 30 hours.

Most trainers employ a method called “positive reinforcement operant conditioning.” This involves giving the animal a command and then rewarding it—usually with food—for responding appropriately. To inform the creature that it’s done a good job and that a reward is on the way, trainers use a special signal known as a “bridge.” Normally a sight or sound cue of some kind (eg: blowing a whistle), this lets the animal know it has done a good job and prevents it from getting frustrated while its trainer grabs a treat. [PDF]

8. AQUARIUMS TEND TO TRADE ANIMALS.

Myrtle the green sea turtle. Image credit: seriouslysilly via Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Myrtle the green sea turtle is arguably the most beloved reptile in Boston. Over the past 46 years, she’s become a fan favorite at the New England Aquarium, where she spends her days eating Brussels sprouts and hanging out with sharks in a gorgeous four-story tank. “She arrived on June 12, 1970 … the year after we opened,” New England Aquarium senior aquarist Sherrie Floyd Cutler told Boston Magazine. Myrtle was acquired from the now-defunct Provincetown Aquarium in exchange for some smaller turtles. Cutler reveals that it’s “very common for aquariums and zoos to trade surplus animals … In terms of conservation, it helps partially to stock exhibits, especially when you’re talking about an endangered species. Myrtle was too big for their tank, so it worked great for us.”

9. THEY PERFORM ANIMAL AUTOPSIES.

“You have to report every single death,” Sally tells mental_floss. Oftentimes, the staff veterinarian(s) will perform a necropsy (an animal autopsy) in order to ascertain why the creature died. Information gleaned from this procedure can be invaluable; if it turns out that a certain fish was killed by some kind of disease, the necropsy might help the staff fight the outbreak before it can spread further and potentially wipe out an entire tank.

10. AQUARISTS SPEND MOST OF THEIR TIME CLEANING.

Just ask Ruby Banwait, a fish specialist at the Vancouver Aquarium [PDF]. “Much of the work of an aquarist is cleaning—cleaning glass, cleaning walls, cleaning gravel,” she says. “This is important not only for the health of the animals but also for aesthetic reasons. We want … visitors [to] mentally transport themselves into the world beneath the water.”

Sally agrees that she spends much of her day cleaning tanks, noting that she’ll often get herself pretty filthy in the process. “There are so many ways to get covered in fish poop,” she jokes. On certain weekdays, she’ll clean the substrate and filters of her aquariums, and fecal matter collects in both locations. Then there’s the protein skimmer, a handy device used to filter out solid waste. “It’s basically just a cup of poop that you have to wash out in a sink,” she explains.

11. GREAT PAINS ARE TAKEN TO KEEP THE SHARKS WELL-FED.

Nurse sharks, lemon sharks, and other good-sized species often share huge, expensive enclosures with various smaller fish. Ever wonder what stops the notorious predators from turning these tanks into sushi bars?

The answer is actually pretty straightforward. When a carnivore’s belly stays full, it loses the urge to hunt. So aquarists make sure that their sharks stay satisfied. At the Tennessee Aquarium, the biggest marine tank is a mixed-species setup that includes multiple sand tiger and sandbar sharks (both of which can grow to 8 feet or more). Three times every week, the predatory fish are given two to three percent of their body weight in food. A typical meal consists of some mackerel meat dipped into the tank at the end of a large pole.

The Toronto-based Ripley’s Aquarium of Canada maintains a similar tank, filled with its own sand tigers. Like their counterparts in Tennessee, the keepers here stand on platforms and hold out long sticks tipped with some tasty shark chow. Apparently, the system works very well. “People frequently lose their poles while feeding the sharks. I’ve even fallen in the tank,” aquarist Nicole Petrovskis told Toronto Life magazine. “When I fell, all the sharks heard the noise and flew to the other side … People ask if I was scared, but the first thing I thought of when I fell in was, ‘Damn, it’s weird to swim with shoes on.’”

All images via iStock unless otherwise noted.

* Some names have been changed.

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8 Bizarre Creatures That Have Washed Ashore
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With an estimated 95 percent of the world’s oceans yet to be explored, science may never have a complete catalog of the various life forms that navigate their depths. Sometimes, these odd creatures come to us instead. Inclement weather, outside forces, or just plain bad luck have led to some strange sea dwellers washing ashore to confuse—and sometimes terrify—onlookers until they can be identified.

Most recently the fangtooth snake eel, or Aplatophis chauliodus, appeared in Texas to cause a stir following Hurricane Harvey. Here are a few more examples of puzzling creatures that have recently landed in the sand.

1. THE MONTAUK MONSTER // 2008

A screen shot of the Montauk Monster
Nat Geo Wild, YouTube

In July 2008, a photo of what looked like the demon that possessed Sigourney Weaver in Ghostbusters made the internet rounds. “The Montauk Monster,” so named because it was discovered on a beach in Montauk, New York, was a curious-looking carcass that was not immediately identifiable. The animal wasn’t available for autopsy—it was carted away by person or persons unknown—but zoologists asked by media to examine the photo were fairly certain it was a decomposing raccoon that had lost enough hair and skin to reduce its charms considerably. Later, a trio of men from nearby Shelter Island admitted to finding a dead raccoon and giving it a "Viking funeral" by setting it ablaze on the water. Whether that’s true or not, the “monster” was almost certainly the same as the one partial to rooting through your trash.

2. THE INDONESIAN KRAKEN // 2017

Death and decomposition can radically alter the appearance of a species that might otherwise be easily identifiable. Such was the case with the 49-foot-long creature that popped up above the water at Seram Island in Indonesia in May 2017.  The spongy, floating mass was initially mistaken for a giant squid before ocean conservationists pointed out a visible skull, jaw, and spine in some photos, making it far more likely that it was a baleen whale. Although they usually sink to the bottom after expiring, this one might have had bacterial gases keeping it afloat.

3. THE DEMON DOLPHIN OF SAKHALIN // 2015

The corpse that washed up on Sakhalin Island
Mystery Universe, YouTube

Ravaged either by the sea or by some kind of enemy—or both—the rotting corpse of a mystery creature washed up on Sakhalin, an island in Russia, in 2015. Its elongated beak led to early suspicions it was a dolphin, but observers were quick to point out that dolphins don’t have fur. That could’ve been some kind of skin deterioration, but eyewitnesses also claimed to have seen what looked like paws on the specimen. The best bet was that it was a bottlenose whale calf. Before a definitive conclusion was reached, the body washed back out to sea.

4. THE MADBALL OF CAPE TOWN // 2014

The off-putting fish that was found in Cape Town, South Africa
Chaoonnews, YouTube

Looking much like a Cenobite keychain, this fierce little creature was allegedly plucked from the sands of a Cape Town, South Africa resort area by a tourist. Appearing to have a body comprised mostly of a mouth, the fanged horror was photographed and sent along to the University of Cape Town’s biological sciences department. Their best guess? It’s Chorisochismus dentex, or a klipsuier, a nibbler that feeds on mussels. The corpse had dried out, disfiguring its already troubling features.

5. THE NEW ZEALAND SEA MONSTER // 2013

A creature that was a subject of controversy in New Zealand
Djinteressantevideos, YouTube

Roughly 30 feet long, with pointed teeth and a gaping maw, this creature found on New Zealand’s Bay of Plenty looked quite a bit like the logo from Jurassic Park. It was so battered that speculation ran from an alligator to a moray eel. Marine biologist Anton van Helden went on record saying it was likely a killer whale due to its distinctive tail: Orcas can be found in New Zealand.

6. A GIANT EYEBALL // 2012

Very little news that emerges out of Florida could be considered boring. And when things wash ashore there, it’s almost certainly going to capture national attention. In 2012, a perfectly-intact, softball-sized eyeball was found on Pompano Beach, just about 10 miles north of Fort Lauderdale. The eerie, disembodied ocular discovery was forwarded to fish and wildlife researchers, who declared it once belonged to a swordfish. It can be rare to find individual body parts ashore—so why an eye? Because it was appeared to be removed with a knife, experts believe a fisherman cut it out and tossed it in the water.

7. THE MARINE MONSTER // 2012

A South Carolina sturgeon that confused observers
nibiruexists, YouTube

Folly Beach in South Carolina was the site of an alarming discovery in 2012, when a bony-plated fish exceeding 10 feet in length was spotted on shore. The South Carolina Aquarium put speculation to rest by declaring it a sturgeon, a large bony fish with relatives dating back 350 million years—and which has been known to grow to be 500 pounds or more. Their eggs are often used for caviar, though presumably no one raided this one for a gourmet snack.

8. THE ROCH NESS MONSTER // 2015

A fanged sea creature found in England
InformOverload, YouTube

Hollingworth Lake near Littleborough, England sounds like the perfect setting for wonderful childhood memories of boating, fishing, and making lifetime bonds. Unfortunately, it was also briefly a contributor of nightmares, when a 5-foot-long, fanged creature washed up there in 2015. Likely a pike, residents said they had no idea anything so large lived in the water. One called it “something prehistoric.”

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Lonely Guests at This Belgian Hotel Can Rent a Goldfish for the Night
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International travel can be lonely, which is why one Belgian airport hotel provides guests with an optional companion: a pet goldfish, rented on a nightly basis for around $4 U.S., according to The Independent.

Located near the Brussels South Charleroi Airport, the Hotel Charleroi Airport in Gosselies has offered fish rentals for several years now. “The idea was to surprise our guests, as we always try to do,” hotel manager David Dillen told The Independent. “It’s brilliant to see how people react to it. They smile, they take pictures to put on social media. We rent a few fish per week.”

Word of the unconventional service spread after New Zealand radio producer Michelle Cooke tweeted a picture of one of the inn’s scaly sidekicks swimming in a glass bowl. “My friend is staying in a hotel in Belgium,” Cooke wrote in her post. “They've offered her the option of renting a fish for the night, in case she's lonely.”

The tweet went viral, with some social media users arguing that the service is unethical towards animals, or that the hotel’s fishbowls are too tiny. Dillen addressed these criticisms, saying the goldfish are healthy and well cared for, with a “big fish tank in the housekeeping department, with a shelter, oxygen, and plants,” as he told The Independent. “When we think it’s necessary, we put them there for a few days.”

That said, if you don't have a good track record with fish, we recommend sticking with regular hotel amenities like free breakfasts and fully stocked minibars.

[h/t The Independent]

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