Hi! My name is Sam, and I really like sharks. I also like to try new things — including new jobs that take me out of my comfort zone.
I had to ACTUALLY work at an aquarium. Lucky for me, the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach was happy to help a brother out.
And you better believe I arrived to my new gig in my Sunday best.
The first thing I did when I arrived was hit the kitchen where food is prepared for the aquarium's residents — and that's where you realize HOW seriously everyone takes their job.
Here's what's in my kitchen in my apartment: a trash can that isn't emptied out nearly often enough, a counter with crumbs on it, and a sink halfway filled with dirty dishes.
Here's what's in an aquarium's kitchen: Spotless counters, this mat that you step on to disinfect your shoes, a pleasant fishy smell, and lots of charts displaying what — and how much — every animal should be eating every day.
Before going to the aquarium, I just thought that sharks would just go to town on a ton of fish every day. NOPE! Each shark that I encountered had a very specific diet — the main shark I worked with ate a mix of restaurant-quality seafood and I even popped some ~vitamins~ into the food (apparently this trick works on sharks as well as kids) — and not only do the sharks eat VERY SPECIFIC food, but they also eat a specific amount of food. All of this food is logged on a daily basis, so if a shark isn't a member of the #CleanPlateClub, the aquarium knows if they're not eating.
Seriously, when it comes to food, aquariums do NOT mess around.
Later in my day, I went even deeper into the aquarium (it's so futuristic-looking, it was even used while filming Halle Berry's sci-fi program Extant) and witnessed where some of the food is actually produced. Unlike with the other food, I wasn't at risk of sneaking a munch or two (doing shots of plankton or krill really isn't my thing). The effort put into making sure the animals are treated and fed well is amazing — but at the same time, that's how it should be, right?
Just like a Madonna concert, I had multiple costume changes.
Yup, it feels good to look good! Time to hit the shark pool...
I got to go backstage, behind the scenes, which was...pretty damn cool!
There’s actually more to feeding sharks and rays than you think.
Aside from carefully keeping track of how much food each of the larger sharks eats every day, the sharks are fed methodically. There isn't any chum-dumping here. Instead, trainers position themselves around the 90,000 gallon main pool and feed each shark at a specific spot — the sharks KNOW where they're supposed to eat. Who knew sharks could be house-trained?
I was tasked with feeding a reticulated whiptail ray — I speared chunks of food on a long pole and placed the food on the bottom of the pool for the stingray to chomp up (the pole would shake when the ray ate because she was so big — eight feet across!). I was most nervous about the possibility that I was going to screw up and one of the sharks was going to steal the stingray's food. I know I hate it when my friends take my food without asking, so I couldn't imagine how a big-ass stingray would feel if the same happened. But crisis averted, I managed to feed all the food to the proper animal.
Can you see how nervous I was??? That's what my face looked like when I took my driver's license test too.
It wasn't until I hopped into an enclosure and fed Fern, a zebra shark, that I realized how *cool* working at an aquarium can be.
Feeding the stingray was super cool (if also incredibly stressful for a n00b like me), and getting to walk around behind the scenes was eye-opening. But actually hopping in to feed Fern with Rachel, who works with the animals at Shark Lagoon, was my aha moment where I realized really WHY would someone would want to work at an aquarium. And that shouldn't be surprising — EVERYONE I talked to at the aquarium said their favorite part of their job was getting in the water and interacting with the animals. There's something SPECIAL about it that's hard to put into words — it's thrilling, but also intimate.
As the saying goes, a job's a job — working at an aquarium is no exception. But feeding Fern felt like that point where you think, This is why I do what I do. And that was very cool to experience.
Working literally hands-on with a shark was also WAY less terrifying than you would imagine.
Also, when you spend time with animals, you begin to pick up on their quirks and personality traits.
After feeding time with the stingray and chilling with my homegirl Fern, Rachel led me on to my next task...
...feeding the bamboo and epaulette sharks!
It probably should come as no surprise...but with this job, you better be prepared to get a little down and dirty.
This ain't your average desk job. I'm used to an air-conditioned office with a coffee machine, so my day at the aquarium was a bit of a shock to my system. I'm pretty sure I didn't smell that great by the end of the day — it was hot out, so I was sweating in my wetsuit, PLUS I smelled like a combination of seawater and fish — and you have to also be comfortable moving around and getting in and out of water (I'm just lucky my klutzy self didn't wipe out entering any of the pools). This is DEFINITELY not the job for you if you're high maintenance. But if you're down to get messy...you should be fine!
Something else I learned: You're bound to get wet at the aquarium.
JK, this should have been obvious.
Feeding time was over, but that didn't mean my day was closing out.
Here's some more of that behind-the-scenes action I was talking about.
It was also behind-the-scenes — at my very final task, working with shark eggs, newborns, and adolescents — where I learned how intimate a job working at an aquarium can be.
I was working with Lauren, who among other tasks handles the shark nursery. Yup, sharks don't just live at the Aquarium of the Pacific — they're born there too (this of course begs the question, which came first: the shark or the egg?).
It's here that younger sharks are tended to and shark eggs are carefully monitored. Unlike the feeding that Rachel does, Lauren's work isn't quite as public, and there is also so much more happening out of what the average visitor might see. To me, this just reinforced the special bond you develop with the animals you work with at the aquarium. It's more like having a kid than having a pet. Not only are you responsible for feeding them, housing them, and keeping them healthy...you're there for them from the time they first start swimming!
Also, the great thing about sharks is they don't have any dirty diapers you have to change. WIN!