Nathan Hill grabs at the chance to return, if briefly, to work in public aquaria â€” and is left breathless by a hectic schedule.
From the position of spectator, the job of an aquarist is a hobbyist’s life of bliss. The illusion of playing with hi-tech gadgetry, embarking on elaborate breeding and research projects and frolicking with ocean giants is one that many a layperson covets.
For visitors, public aquaria don’t seem particularly hectic places to work. Guests rarely see panicking staff dashing from leaking pipe to leaking pipe, or catching fish. Everything seems to occur in a quiet and hidden harmony behind the scenes.
Having been out of the public aquarium trade for more than a decade, I decided I wanted to return to see how things play out day to day.
Even so, I fancied myself as more than a tourist, so contacting London SeaLife curator Paul Hale — who used to be the curator of the aquarium where I once worked — we arranged for me to be thrown into the mix of staff.
I’d do what the employed team of SeaLife staff would do, facing the same highs and lows, and be exposed to the same risks. This was to be no cosy, mollycoddled day of being shown things from a distance while health and safety managers fretted over whether my shoes were comfy enough. This was a chance to get stuck into the hard core of public aquatics.
I was tossed from aquarist to aquarist and job to job. Some were familiar and, just like riding a trike, I was comfy within seconds, flaunting skills I haven’t had to dust off for many years. Other tasks were newer and more daunting — not to mention much more perilous than I ever remembered.
Most importantly, and that part of public aquaria I’d forgotten about, by the end of my shift I was totally exhausted!
A combination of carrying buckets of water, going from extremes of tropical heat to Arctic cold and constantly being on my feet chiseled away at my energy until I remembered just how draining a job it really is.
9am: Start the day
I turned up late and missed the first task — checking the life support and livestock.
Don’t think this is comparable to a quick glance inside a 60cm/2’ tank to look for whitespot. This is a rare chance to have an unhindered look at sharks and rays in 1,000,000 l/220,000 gal of water to spot the odd parasite or split fin.
An hour later and such inspections would be tricky, once the doors are open and visitors arrive, so inspection needs to be accurate but fast.
Life support checking is just as laborious. Rather than having a Fluval 2 canister, the tanks involve gigantic spider valves, pressurised sand filters and hundreds of metres of plumbing. A simple leak can fast turn into a headache that requires day-long attention.
9.30am: Feeding jellyfish and quarantine
Unlike sprinkling some flake on to the surface of an aquarium, breakfast for livestock takes considerably more preparation.
In a dedicated live food section, we harvested Artemia nauplii — litres and litres of nauplii. Fixed plumbing accelerated the process as we drained vats through nets and then separated the newly-hatched shrimp.
We used magnetised Artemia and so, once harvested, we placed the culture into a settlement tube teeming with magnets. This drags out the cysts and unhatched eggs, but not hatched shrimp.
As the Artemia settled, we cleaned the harvesting vats using algae pads and dexterous fingers. Then the vats were refilled with reclaimed seawater from a plumbed supply and fresh cultures soaked for the next day.
We enriched adult Artemia with lipids, while constantly keeping an eye on tanks brimming with shark eggs, as well as tanks of pipefish, and the various animals being rested. We strained off the now shell-free Artemia nauplii and started syphoning out debris from jellyfish tanks before feeding them.
More cleaning followed as the magnets were washed off and Artemia separator cleaned out, followed by more feeding. Some food was held back for display anemones and other jellyfish.
Gaining access to the feeding areas for displays took as much flexibility in moving around pipes and other behind-the-scene obstructions as manoeuvring around the newly-arriving visitors. Wearing a SeaLife top is a visible invite to approach and converse, that’s for sure.
10.40am: Main feed preparation
My quarantine session finished after the records had been filled in and I moved to the next task where we were to arrange meals for the larger displays.
Big fish have big appetites but, with so many in the larger displays, meals have to be able to fit different-sized mouths.
For the one tank, we had to arrange supplements in the food — specifically vitamins and potassium iodide. The latter is required for sharks that are notoriously prone to developing goiter — over activity of the thyroid gland.
Individual food fish were incised, supplements measured and the whole lot assembled by hand. We prepared 20 mackerel, 15 whiting, nine haddock, two trevally and almost 9kg of squid.
Some was chopped in the normal way. Others had heads removed before being gutted and cut into strips of varying sizes. With endless squid this was no quick task.
Obviously this job was filthy, requiring gloves and aprons. Despite these, the liquids and their associated aromas still found their way into my clothes and skin, making whoever performs this task regularly an aquatic pariah.
11.40am: Water testing
Next came the closest thing to a break so far — a sit down in the lab to test water.
Water tests are frequent in public aquaria and records comprehensive. The kit here is a step-up from an off-the-shelf master tester and regular tests take place for NO3, NO2, NH3, Fe, SO4, Cl, K, PO4, Cu, Alk, Mg, S.G, and pH.
Some things we could probe, such as nitrate, but for other tests we had to use colourmetric indicators — just like a home test — and then get an accurate reading by placing them in a photometer. Everything had to be recorded. Test tubes and beakers were everywhere and we worked through the lot.
The job was made longer by the need to rinse everything thoroughly between tests. With the ultra-accurate readings of the photometer we used comes a need for complete cleanliness — and lots of wiping up afterwards.
Thankfully we only had a few sections of the aquarium to work through as the duties are rotated daily, but this would easily become a full-time job for any employee if all the systems needed to be recorded daily to this high degree of accuracy.
12.30pm: Penguin feeding
Think that being an aquarist is all about fish? Think again. In the ever-changing climate of public aquaria diversity is essential and even though you may be qualified in fish you’ll likely meet and work with other animals.
The chilled section of the penguins is a brief relief from the heat of other sections, but the labour is just as intensive.
As well as feeding we had to collect ice prepared in another part of the labyrinthine building. We then had to lug it to the other end to drain off excess fluids before heading to the display where we had to don lifejackets.
My second chance to sit down was particularly cold comfort, as all I had to perch on were frosty rocks. I sat shivering as the animals came and took food that had to be rammed down their throats because of their avian laziness.
Post feed, we had to collect and distribute the ice — a delightful task for already chilled hands. Once deposited, there were more records to complete and more cleaning before we broke for lunch. Yet even that wasn’t simple.
Public aquaria get through lots of food and en route to our break we met a pallet of frozen fish and squid, and a handful of staff unloading it. We were instantly collared into lifting ice cold, heavy boxes into the storage freezers — marking and recording everything along the way.
2.30pm: Shark feed
This was the high point of the day, but not as relaxing as a feed session in a home tank. We had to carry buckets across the building and then go behind the scenes into the feeding platforms of the Pacific display tank.
Lifejackets on, we stood in remarkable heat and humidity working collectively to feed the fish. Radio communication from below allowed for targeted scatter feeding, while I knelt on painful, grated flooring to dangle a long feeding pole over the sharks.
I needed to make sure that the food didn’t go to the wrong shark, but I failed. Identifying individuals at a few metres depth, when looking through waves, is not a chore I’d relish again.
Improvisation was key, chasing up and down service walkways above the tank, trying to feed the right fish in oppressive heat. Suitably convinced that all had eaten, we returned the gear to the food preparation area for more cleaning and yet more records.
3.15pm: Moving fish from quarantine to displays
For most of us moving fish would be simple, but usually a crocodile isn’t involved!
Although a peculiar choice, we had to round up some Malawi cichlids from the quarantine area, which involves bringing a bongo to half fill with water — probably to 60-70 l/13-15 gal — and then catch the fish to put inside.
While doing so I took the chance to see some of the ever-problematic big rescue fish in large rounded tubs. There was a gar in one, maybe 1m/3.5’ long, that the former owner kept in her bathtub…
With the fish eventually caught and the bongo loaded onto a trolley, we made our way through the maze of back passages to the crocodile display. Behind the scenes again, we had to bring the bongo to within dripping range, as carrying the thing through the restrictive openings in and out of the display would have been well nigh impossible.
Satisfied we were within several metres, a length of hose was used to lift water from the system and drip into the bongo.
After being briefed on seemingly endless handling protocols —including one explaining what to do while having your arm pulled off by the crocodile — it was a case of luring her into an area which could be remotely closed off.
A game of patience ensued, with aquarists grabbing at levers to lock her away.
We performed a clean, using long wipers and scrapers on poles. Reaching both into and out of the water using a 3m/10’ pole is exhausting at the best of times, but, combined with the tropical temperatures and humidity generated by hidden misters, it becomes particularly unbearable.
After using the drip method for around 40 minutes, the fish were transported to smaller buckets where they were then carried through the narrow access way and released.
It was with some shame that I’d taken too long on this chore as I had actually been destined to remove shark and ray eggs from another tank — a job that, as a result, I missed…
4.20pm: Ocean tank feed
Laden with yet more trollies and buckets of food, we headed across to another gigantic display housing turtles. This time we were armed with both New Era pellet foods, as well as ample greenery in the form of cabbages, cucumbers and more.
Without the benefit of the radio communication this time, we had to simply assess whether the fish were getting the right foods. Much involved scatter feeding, hurling handfuls into the frenzied mass. It was impossible to spot if anyone was missing out.
My role was to distract the two huge Green turtles by feeding them greenery while my co-worker ran a long pipe to the bottom of the tank, dropping food down to more benthic fishes.
Easier said than done, as these diners spent as much time chasing the tube as accepting my offerings!
More scatter feeding ensued, with chopped squid and fish creating yet another frenzied flurry of excitement.
4.50pm: Target feeding the sharks
We returned to the Pacific display as we travelled back from the turtles. Not content that by now everything had a full belly, my colleague had held on to a few fish to feed a couple of specific Black-tipped reef sharks.
While scampering along, I peeked into one of the display filters which looked as though it had more flow than most rivers I had yet come across. I realised then just how deafening that half of the display was and how easy it would be to run into difficulties without being able to communicate your distress to any colleagues.
Target feeding done, we made our way back to the food prep area to sift through uneaten food and store what could be used next day, and clean our buckets and equipment before finishing the day with a final huge dose of yet more record keeping.
Why do the staff want to do it?
As I was working alongside such a wide range of aquarists, I asked what made them buzz – and what deflated them.
Major plus point was the experience itself. Several times my co-workers became dreamy eyed when talking of the magic of working alongside the animals. After all, not many of us get to keep a Sand tiger shark!
One aquarist talked of the sheer diversity of experiences, always trying new things and never tethered to a dead-end job.
Big tanks bring a wealth of new sensations and one worker beamed as she talked of diving in the gigantic, shark-filled tanks.
Another explained that his high point is educating the public. He thrived on breaking visitor misconceptions about creatures like sharks and felt a sense of reward when they left for home far wiser.
However, there are also some lows and most loudly voiced was the amount of paperwork associated with the job.
Pay was an obvious gripe too. Working in a role you enjoy, but knowing so many people want your job, you might not always have financial leverage over your employers.
Abrasive visitors was another — a point I’m sure many retailers could sympathise with. Those who have no compassion for the animals have no bond with those who love them.
Cleaning was another bugbear and, given those endless buckets of slimy squid and fish offal, I can see why. The smell sticks with you all day…
The final gripe was the number of working hours. Those in public aquaria have a greater obligation to work weekends and bank holidays and finish only when the animals have finished needing them.
Given a crisis, you could still be there well into the night. Breeding sharks don’t acknowledge clocking-off times...
Interested in a job like this?
Being a public aquarist is enjoyable, but not something to just walk into.
Work experience is vital, given the hands-on role dealing with animals that can cause you serious harm.
Qualifications are becoming ever more essential and a good grade in a specialist field would be advantageous.
Staff members were mainly from marine biology backgrounds, although zoology and even psychology degrees were also in the mix. Some had worked at internships elsewhere and others had started working on the most menial tasks.
It might help to be aspirational too. Nearly everyone I spoke to eventually wanted a much bigger role in aquatics, citing marine conservation, aquatic research and even their own curator’s job as end goals.
Don’t expect this to be a glamorous occupation. Public aquarists don’t live in mansions and drive Bentleys. They tend to be from the school of life background, appreciating that this is definitely a labour of love.
Would I go back to it? Hell, given the choice I’d be chopping squid right now…
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