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15 Years of Aquarium Memories

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Thursday, June 06, 2013


The first week of June marks my 15th year of volunteering at the Aquarium of the Pacific. Later this month the Aquarium celebrates the 15th Anniversary of its Grand Opening. So to commemorate both occasions, in no particular order, I’d like to share 15 of my favorite memories of the Aquarium of the Pacific over the years.

  1. Teaching a blind seal to retrieve. One of the proudest moments I’ve had at the Aquarium was helping Ellie the Harbor Seal relearn how to do one of her favorite behaviors.
  2. Swimming with sea lions. As an enrichment session for the sea lions some of the volunteers and staff use to don snorkeling gear and swim in the exhibit with them. Imagine floating face down in the water while a sea lion is floating face up looking at you. Yes it was cool!
  3. Huggable seals. One of the behaviors I taught Shelby the Harbor Seal was something I like to call Hug-a-Seal. The huggable and loveable Shelby will sit by you and allow an arm around her back for a photo op. It actually turned out to be a nice behavior to use during Shelby’s pregnancies as it allowed staff to more fully check out her body during that time.
  4. Raising the Furball. Gidget was the very first Southern Sea Otter that I ever helped raise. She was an older pup when she became orphaned. Because of that she had a lot of traits of a wild critter and taught me a lot about otter behavior. It was a proud moment for me when my little furball was chosen to be a surrogate mother to other orphan sea otter pups up in Monterey. The goal being to eventually return these pups to the wild.
  5. Raising Ollie the Sea Otter. Whereas Gidget was an older pup when orphaned, Ollie was quite young when she lost her mom. She was much more dependent on people during her early days at the Aquarium. She insisted on being right next to you when she would take her naps. If you moved away she would cry until she was by you again. She’s the most free spirited animal I’ve ever met.
  6. Researching Urban Sea Turtles. I once thought that the stretch of the San Gabriel River which runs between Los Angeles and Orange County near Long Beach was merely a lifeless conveyor of urban runoff. Then my wife and I started collecting field notes on the Green Sea Turtles of the river for the Aquarium. It turns out the river is alive with a huge variety of animals. There are not only endangered sea turtles that are drawn to this stretch of water due to the warm effluents of the electrical power plants that line the banks. There are also Ospreys, Coyotes, Butterfly Rays, swimming Gopher Snakes, Peregrine Falcons, swimming Ground Squirrels and even an occasional Dolphin and Sea Lion.
  7. Fin Whale Rescue. Back in 2003 the Aquarium hosted the International Marine Animal Trainers Association convention in Long Beach. While attending this event I was called off to the side and asked to help check out a possible cetacean stranding at Sunset Beach, a few miles down the coast. I ended up spending 4 hours in the surf with a beached baby fin whale. Later a whole cadre of Aquarium of the Pacific staffers arrived like the cavalry to reinforce our efforts to save the whale.
  8. Avery the Penguin. Who knew that a young Magellanic Penguin who came ashore distressed in Rio and needed a home would become one of my favorite critters at the Aquarium? I used to hang out with Avery while he was in the treatment area of the Aquarium’s behind the scenes holding pad. Today he is one of the stars of the June Keyes Penguin Exhibit.
  9. Petting a Porcupine. The program animals are the hidden gems of the Aquarium. Lola the cockatoo is one of the main ambassadors to the public while Orion the Kestrel and Tito the prehensile-tailed porcupine help educated guests during in person animal presentations. One of the more unusual experiences I’ve had was learning how to pet a porcupine. Front to back. Always front to back.
  10. Topaz the Aquarium Cat. Topaz is longest tenure staffer at the Aquarium. He is also my greeter before every shift.
  11. Watching Parker the sea lion grow up. I’ve had the joy of watching Parker the Sea Lion grow from a scrawny little pup to a massive and impressive 800 pound adult.
  12. The Aquarium Staff. As much as I’ve enjoyed my interaction with the animals of the Aquarium I’ve enjoyed my interaction with the staff over the years even more. I especially enjoy working with the dry siders like Anitza and Cecile in the Communications department, Marilyn in PR and our CEO Jerry Schubel. They help keep the overall view of operations at the Aquarium in order and allow the rest of us to concentrate on our individual jobs and responsibilities.
  13. The Guests. Because of the Aquarium I’ve met people from all over the world over the years. Hollywood celebrities, families on vacation, foreign dignitaries, you never knew who you might run into during a shift. I know that I’ve grown as a person just from interacting with the many visitors to the Aquarium.
  14. Milo-cam and iPad playing penguins. I appreciate that the staff allows me to explore some of my outside the box ideas when it comes to my volunteer shift. Like allowing me to build a camera rig for Milo the Sea Lion to take underwater or using an iPad as a penguin enrichment toy. Or even using video special effects to turn Brook the Sea Otter in “Darth Otter”.
  15. Shark Cage Trip. One of the most poignant moments I had with the Aquarium was an Aquarium sponsored shark cage trip to Catalina Island in 2001 right after 9/11. As I snorkeled in the shark cage while a small Mako and blue sharks swam around us I couldn’t help but notice that there were no other civilian boats in sight. There were also no aircraft in the air. It was an eerie feeling that day. Later a Navy S-3 Viking patrol jet flew overhead and a Peary Class frigate appeared on the horizon, a missile loaded on its launcher. I also knew that over the horizon the aircraft carrier USS Stennis was patrolling the waters for hostiles. Earlier that year I had spent time training some of their crewmen at North Island. I knew that they had made an emergency deployment to protect the coast due to the events of that week. It was actually kind of comforting to see them out there with us.
15 Years of Aquarium Memories
The Saturday mammal staff in 2004.
15 Years of Aquarium Memories
The Aquarium of the Pacific in 2000.  | Hugh Ryono

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