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Staff keeps aquarium hospitable

Mel Scott, an aquarist at the Flint RiverQuarium, throws squid into the facility’s Blue Hole Spring during feeding time. An aquarist’s basic job requirement is look after the fish living in an aquarium.

Mel Scott, an aquarist at the Flint RiverQuarium, throws squid into the facility’s Blue Hole Spring during feeding time. An aquarist’s basic job requirement is look after the fish living in an aquarium.

ALBANY, Ga. -- The key to keeping the Flint RiverQuarium a healthy environment for its inhabitants requires a lot of behind-the-scenes work.

That's where the aquarist comes in.

There is a staff of five people -- the general curator, an aquarist, an aviculturist/herpetologist as well as full-time and part-time husbandry assistants -- who are responsible for ensuring the animals at the facility are well taken care of.

"The curatorial staff not only watches out for the individual animals' health and well-being, but also the well-being of the systems that the animals inhabit," said Richard Brown, the RiverQuarium's general curator. "The environment that each system creates determines to a large extent the health and well-being of the animals within it.

"A good example of this would be the Gulf of Mexico system. The aquarist in charge of this system has to monitor the temperature, salinity, pH and ammonia levels to make sure that all of these parameters are within optimum levels for the animals that live in the exhibit, and make adjustments to keep them that way. Standard maintenance like gravel washing and filter changes must also be done at regular intervals."

There is even an emergency sensor system in place that can call staff members in the middle of the night if one of the tanks loses pressure because of problems such as a power outage or pump malfunction.

The aviary, home to the facility's bird population, also requires upkeep.

"We don't just feed the birds. We change out bedding, put out heat lamps during cold weather, clean the pond edge daily, backwash the pond filters and keep the ultraviolet disinfecting system going so that the bacteria level in the pond water doesn't get too high," Brown said. "Very few people who see the healthy animals on exhibit know the amount of work and dedication it takes to keep these animals healthy."

TAKING THE TEMPERATURE

At last count, the RiverQuarium had just over 1,000 animals, including invertebrates, fish, amphibians, reptiles and birds -- with a focus on what is native to the region.

The first thing that an aquarist will do is conduct a morning routine involving a walk-through of the facility to ensure the animals are healthy and alive, and make sure intakes are not clogged. There are also steps that need to be taken to make sure the displays look nice for customers, such as wiping fingerprints off of the tanks.

Water temperatures alone play a big part into the quality check process.

"Heaters and chillers can break overnight," said Mel Scott, an aquarist at the RiverQuarium. "It doesn't seem off by looking at it, but when you stick a thermometer in there, it makes a big difference."

Scrub brushes will also need to be taken into tanks every once in a while to clean them out from the inside. For bigger systems, such as the facility's 22-foot deep, outdoor Blue Hole Spring, staff may be required to put on a wetsuit and jump in to do the work.

If there are sick animals on the floor, they are taken out and put in quarantine. Those that are found dead are taken out and may be examined to determine the cause of death.

"That is usually done if we are worried about something we can't find, or if we have had a lot of losses," Scott said.

The morning routine also includes checking on the birds in the aviary, as well as cleaning off surface droppings that have been left overnight. Then, the staff will check on the exhibit housed in the same building as the Imagination Theater -- located adjacent to the main building.

Then it comes time to check the filtration systems for the Blue Hole and Cypress Creek -- home to the attraction's alligators -- as well as making sure the temperatures are where they should be.

"We can't let it get below 60 degrees. If it gets to that point, we have to turn on the heaters," Scott said. "It's a balance we have to strike every winter."

IT'S LUNCHTIME

After this comes the task that takes up a third of an aquarist's day -- feeding. At the RiverQuarium, for the sake of maintaining a variety in the animals' diets, there is a menu laid out detailing what is given to them on a particular day, as well as what needs to be prepped for the next day.

The staff is expected to ensure the animals are getting nutrient-dense food at least once a week. Among the typical menu items is squid, which is mainly for the bass in the Blue Hole.

"The squid is convenient to put vitamins into, which is done twice a week," Scott said. "There are two sizes of vitamins that we use."

Part of the prepping process includes cutting up the food for the smaller fish. Another one of the items used for feeding is krill, which comes in cases packaged in blocks that are then cut up.

"We feed them by the size of their mouths," Scott said. "If it is too big to swallow, they won't eat it, even if they are hungry.

"What they can eat in three minutes is about right."

For the tortoises, salad bowls consisting of two types of greens, two types of vegetables and a fruit are prepared and placed out.

"Tortoises can be very particular on what they like or don't like." Scott said. "In the summer, we give them strawberries and they will dig through to find them -- but you have to be careful. It's like giving a kid too much candy.

"The fruit is more of a treat. It just attracts them to the salad."

Scott, a native of Seattle, said she got on her career path as early as elementary school when someone came in and did a series on marine biology.

"I just never looked back after that," she said. "I kept my options for research open, and when I came to work in research -- with the papers and grants -- I realized it wasn't my cup of tea.

"This job doesn't pay a lot, but its very fulfilling."

A BALANCING ACT

It's a job that obviously requires an education on fish in general as well how to maintain a tank. While the setting seems similar to a zoo from a visitor's perspective, it is in fact very different, officials say.

A big part of caring for a tank environment, Scott said, is creating an atmosphere in which stress on the fish is reduced.

"The large majority of our job is taking care of tanks. The animals here don't need me to train them or anything like that, like with zoo animals," Scott said.

Perhaps one of the most challenging aspects of the job in general is balancing all the tasks involved with it, Scott said.

"We've got to make sure everything is checked," she said. "We need to make sure the fish's needs are met, but that (the displays) look like they are worth $9.

"I may squeeze in time with customers when I can."

One of the tasks that falls into the "make sure everything looks nice" category is gravel washing, which Scott said is the task she perhaps likes most.

"It's nice to look back and see how clean it looks," she said. "It's hard work, but it is very satisfying.

"Some people find it boring. I find it relaxing."

Another interesting part of the job is people coming in to drop off pets they can no longer care for or inquiring about rehabilitation services.

"We've had people that have found turtles in their yard, or that get too big," Scott said. "(As for the rehab services), that is just not what we are. We direct them to other places, such as the Department of Natural Resources."

'OUR SHINING STAR'

The "feed out" starts with the quarantine area, which can also include those from the hatchery that are still too small for the Blue Hole, those that have been injured, those that have been at the RiverQuarium for fewer than 30 days as well as others that -- for some reason or another -- are not on display.

Then the ones on display are feed, a process that involves going into a back-room area and climbing up to the tanks one by one to feed the fish in the wall displays.

What's left from those feedings will get tossed into a bucket that is thrown into the Blue Hole -- a feature most people would say makes the RiverQuarium stand out.

"Most aquariums don't muck with the outdoor systems because they (present opportunity) for parasites that can come from birds, as well as heating, cooling and algae (issues).

"It is our shining star."

The Blue Hole feeding can be dangerous to the novice, since it involves walking along a narrow path surrounding the system.

After the feedings comes the gravel washing, which is done with a device -- that comes in several sizes -- designed so that the undesirable elements will stay in it while the gravel does not.

It's a process done once a week for smaller systems, and once a month for larger systems. The biggest tanks may require for someone to go in with a wetsuit to thoroughly do the job.

All of this, as well as dealing with filter cartridges, perhaps takes up the large majority of an aquarist's day.