Thoughts on Working at an Aquarium


Like most people who commute into the city of Boston for work, I spend my mornings sitting in traffic and coping with uncomfortably crowded train rides. Bu that’s probably the only part of my day that I have in common with most commuters. While most are settling at desks or in meetings by 9 am, the staff at the New England Aquarium are bustling around cleaning exhibit windows, prepping food for hungry critters, and flicking on lights to illuminate all the undersea wonders the place has to offer.

People often ask me what a typical day is like at the aquarium, and that question doesn’t exactly have an easy answer. Each day brings something new. Some mornings we’re pulling skate eggs out of exhibit tanks or transporting a Giant Pacific Octopus (G.P.O) from one tank to another. There have been days where I return from my lunch break and found new critters in our exhibit (one day it was ten tiny turtles!)

Red Belly Cooters are an endangered species of turtles. They spend their days eating and rafting up on lettuce leaves.

From my very first day, I knew there would be no such thing as a ‘normal’ day of work. At 11 am on my first morning, I helped lug a heavy tub of water containing only one fish up to the veterinary clinic on the fifth floor. The fish was going to the doctor for eye surgery. I watched in utter amazement as a white powder similar to what we would use as laughing gas was sprinkled into the water. Once the fish stopped swimming, the vets got to work injecting painkillers and antibiotics as they worked on the eye.

Needless to say, every day is fresh and exciting. A day has yet to go by where I haven’t learned something. And even though I do have a routine (clean windows, take water temperature, prep food) it’s not synonymous with mundane.

The highlight of my job as an aquarist is getting to work with octopuses. The first time I met Sy, named after author and naturalist Sy Montgomery, I was absolutely captivated by her. At 4 and a half years old, she’s the older of our two giant pacific octopuses (no, it’s not octopi). Sy is beautiful, just watching her is fascinating. On my first day, I waited until just before my lunch break to open the latch to her tank to get a good look at her. I reached my hand into the tank and her tentacles stretched out towards me. She wrapped around my forearm and gave it a soft squeeze, as if she was hugging me hello.

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Sy reaches out to me, exploring and communicating with just a few of her 1,500 suction cups

Our second G.P.O is named Freya, after a Scandinavian ice princess. My supervisor, Bill Murphy, decided on the name as he found her to be cold and standoffish. She’s begun to warm up though. She came to the aquarium not long before I began working. At 1 and a half years old, Freya is active and vibrant. When she was first placed in her exhibit tank, she seemed to be dancing around as she changed colors, explored nooks, and climbed up the walls.

Freya shows off her camouflage ability

Friends and family will ask me how I can tell the difference between the two octopuses. Aside from the fact that are different in size and color (Sy is larger and more purple in color, Freya is small and red in color), they have distinctly different personalities and preferences. Sy is docile, sweet and inquisitive in her interactions with people. Freya is quick and only interacts on her own terms. If she reaches out to me she has no problem touching me, but if I reach out to her she tends to jet away. The two G.P.Os even have food preferences. We normally feed our animals whole clams, which include the tongues. Sy prefers to only eat the part humans would eat, and spit out the tongue. Freya will only eat shrimp if they’re peeled for her. Their picky preferences never deter me though, as every day I recognize how lucky I am to be working with such intelligent, alien creatures.

Working with animals has taught me a lot, especially about patience. I practice my patience on the days when I’ve spent 30 minutes dangling a piece of food in front of an interested lord fish, who ultimately doesn’t eat. I work on my patience when I’m trying to feed skates but the piggy cods who share their tank keep stealing the food. I’ve learned about the importance of paying attention to details when you’re responsible for so many animals. I’ve even gotten good at things I never knew I wanted to be good at, like starting a siphon or coaxing a stubborn goose fish to eat.

The best part about my work is not only the fact that I get to spend time around animals who are their own individuals, animals who I’ve come so quickly to love, but also the fact I’m surrounded by inquisitive, insightful, science-minded people. At the end of everyday, I find my work exciting and meaningful. What they say is true, do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.

Anemones are in fact living creatures. This one is carnivorous, and catches fish and shrimp that get caught by their stinging cells.


** All views and opinions in this article are that of my own personal experiences, and not necessarily the views and opinions of the New England Aquarium**