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Conservation | 10 Year Anniversary Stories | Volunteering | Amphibians | Birds | Fish | Mammals | Sharks | Turtles

Wednesday, June 04, 2008


This June 20th is the tenth anniversary of the Grand Opening of the Aquarium of the Pacific back in 1998. However, this June 6th is my ten year anniversary of the day that I started volunteering at the Aquarium. To commemorate my anniversary day, this week’s blog is about my top ten Aquarium memories and experiences.


Occasionally the Aquarium helps out other AZA facilities by taking care of some of their animals at our facility. One of my favorite animal visitors was Gracie the sea otter that the Aquarium cared for temporarily while the exhibit at her home facility was being worked on. Gracie had a unique personality and loved to have visitors during her feeds. My favorite memory of her is when she took a ball in her paws and spun around with it like a Lakers player about to do a reverse slam dunk.

The Aquarium also from time to time has had other organizations and facilities like Animal Ambassadors and the LA Zoo bring in animals to help illustrate educational and environmental messages. One of these was a beautiful African Serval Cat that was shown demonstrating its impressive jumping abilities to illustrate how animals adapt their hunting strategies to their environment, in the case of the cat, to catch birds. Other visiting animals illustrating environmental message included penguins, laughing dogs, and bald eagles. I always enjoyed seeing these animal visitors.


Being so close to the entertainment capital of the world, the Aquarium tends to have a regular flow of celebrities, both major and minor, working and sight-seeing, come through to see our critters, a few of which have crossed my pass. I remember seeing the late Steve Irwin rushing through the hallway leading to the vet room while taping one of his shows at the Aquarium. His only comment to me was “You work with the seals, I can tell by your whistle.”

We also had the fun of being part of the VH1 Where Are They Now? —THIS IS SPINAL TAP show back in 2000. Here is a bit from the show. The fictional band member Nigel becomes a junior ichthyologist at the Aquarium of the Pacific. “The first thing you learn is to point to signs,” said Nigel. Nigel later was promoted to the big tank, where he donned a wetsuit to feed lettuce to various fish. “There are more than five different kinds of fish - big, tiny and medium,” Nigel explained, “If you hold your hand up with five fingers it means, don’t hurt me. The medium fish are the ones you have to worry about because they have a chip on their shoulder. The medium-sized fish will say, ‘You come here’ and then bite you on your bum, which is what happened to me.”

There’s been many times in the past decade where we would look out at the audience and noticed an actor or actress from television or motion pictures watching the presentation. It seems that over the years the Aquarium of the Pacific has become the “IN” place to visit amongst the Hollywood types.


Sometimes people have a special connection with an animal where they just click well together. Cases in point are some of the special one on one relationship that our staff have had with an animal in their care.

THE PROFESSIONALS—ROB AND CHARLIE THE SEA OTTER: This is an example of a great professional relationship between animal and human. Our assistant curator Rob worked with Charlie the Sea Otter months before the Aquarium opened and that’s where they forged their teamwork together. It may have to do with Rob’s Army background but you can see a bit of military precision to their training sessions together. Charlie seemed a bit more attentive and focused when paired with his long time co-worker. Charlie has become famous as one of the best trained sea otters in the world.

THE ENTERTAINERS—DEBBIE AND MILLER THE SEA LION: Former Aquarium mammalogist Debbie and Miller the sea lion had a special relationship that was forged back in the days when both worked at a local theme park together. For those of us back then who were new to trained sea lions it was quite impressive to see how well these two worked with each other. For guests and volunteers, the behaviors that these two demonstrated during presentations were quite entertaining to watch and at the same time quite stimulating for the sea lion. You could tell that Miller enjoyed working with her. And the audience always seemed to enjoy the improvisational presentation they put on showing off Miller’s abilities.

THE TEACHER AND THE STUDENT—JENNY AND SHELBY THE HARBOR SEAL: Shelby the harbor seal was a young inexperienced critter when she first came to the Aquarium early in 1998. Jenny, our senior mammologist back then, took Shelby under her wing and worked to train the three year old seal. With the patience of a saint, she turned the once nervous and shy seal into a very easy to work with pinniped. Ten years later Shelby is still a joy to work with thanks to Jenny’s efforts.


Back during the early years of the Aquarium, staffers used to have to walk along the mouth of the L.A. River to get to work from the staff parking area. Occasionally, we would be treated to the sight of wild bottlenose dolphins foraging in the river mouth in the early morning. Once even a young gray whale visited the mouth of the river during my walk to the facility. Wildlife abounds around the Aquarium. I’ve seen Great Blue herons; burrowing owls and Coopers hawks hanging around the exhibits. We’ve even had a few Brown Pelicans land on the water of the seal and sea lion exhibit. During one impromptu walk around the Aquarium grounds I once counted over two dozen species of birds, reptiles and mammals living near or passing through the area. And of course there is the former nesting area of the wild Western gull Radio Flyer on the rock facade of the seal and sea lion exhibit that has seen a brood of chicks hatched and raised there every summer since the Aquariums opened. This year is no exception as another wild Western gull pair has set up their nest in the same place that Radio Flyer and his mate Trixie had theirs for many years.


During the Aquarium’s Pacific Island Summer theme a few years ago, Prevost Squirrels, a binturong, dusky pademelons, and coconut crabs were introduced to visitors. I have many fond memories of working with these animals and they helped open up my eyes to the rich biodiversity of the Pacific Rim.


One of the neatest voyages I’ve ever taken was a shark snorkeling adventure off Catalina Island sponsored by the Aquarium in 2001. Floating in a steel cage hanging from the side of a boat, I was treated to the sight of Mako and Blue sharks swimming around us. The Mako sharks were especially exciting as they were so quick that when you blinked, they were instantly gone and then reappearing again just as suddenly. 4: RESCUES

Along with the Fin whale rescue and Snowy Egret rehab that I’ve mentioned in previous blogs, the rescue and treatment of distressed sea and shore birds from an oil spill that the Aquarium pitched in to help with a few years ago stands out in my memory. Being previously trained in the care of oil affected animals, my duties during this crisis was to hold the grebes, loons, and ducks so that treatment could be administered. The ducks were easy but the grebes with their sharp beaks left a few peck wounds on my arms. Dozens of Aquarium staffers helped in the successful rescue and treatment of hundreds of distressed birds.


Mr. Green the Puffin thinks he is the Alpha Male. I don’t mean just amongst birds but of everything and everyone that enters his domain in the Alcid exhibit. While other birds will shy away from staffers, Mr. Green will boldly enter the personal space of people making them on occasion quite nervous of his strong beak. I know this from experience as Mr. Green has done this to me on several occasions. However, aviculturalist Jenna is the one person that Mr. Green will actually act submissive to. Mr. Green for some reason has bonded with Jenna and she can be near him without fear as he coos and rubs his beak on her in the way that mated Puffin pairs do.

Another bird with a bit of attitude is Oscar the Stilt. Oscar was one of the original birds in the sea turtle exhibit when the Aquarium first opened. I remember working with one of the turtles back then when I heard a racket behind me. When I turned around, there was Oscar raising a ruckus because I was blocking his way to the food dish. While most of the other shore birds were hiding on the other end of the exhibit, Oscar was nearby letting me know that I was in his territory!

All lorikeets have attitude but a few have a bit more personality than others. One of these is Piper. One of Piper’s endearing behaviors is that when you whistle at him he will harmonize with you using his own whistle. He is also a very staff oriented bird and loves to cling on you while you are working in the exhibit. When you leave the exhibit, you always have to make sure that you’re not wearing a lorikeet out the door.


Helping the vet department in their animal care duties has really expanded my experience with different types of animals. To mention just a few of the animals I’ve had to handle for treatment over the years; I’ve helped with a docile people friendly unicorn fish that just seemed to want to be held, had a cane toad pee in my hand, kept watch over newborn baby black-tip sharks, been dragged along by a green sea turtle, been the designated “Duck Man” for feeding and holding quarantine Ruddy and Golden Eye ducks, helped a Pademelon go to the bathroom and even sat in a vet room just to keep a lonely ailing lorikeet company.


Of course the main reason for me spending my Saturdays for the past ten years volunteering at the Aquarium of the Pacific and most of my fondest memories come from the joy of working with the seals and sea lions. There are way too many experiences to tell about in this week’s blog so you’ll just have to stay tuned!

A bird with attitude---Mr. Green (named for his green ID ring) with Jenna.
A wild Blue Heron visits the Rocky Shores exhibit at the Aquarium.  | Hugh Ryono
The Professionals---A tongue-in-cheek image of Rob and Charlie the sea otter.  | Hugh Ryono
A newborn Black-tip shark pup is given a helping hand by a staffer.  | Hugh Ryono

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Anitza's avatar


Wednesday, June 11, 2008 01:58 PM

Reading this entry made me very nostalgic, and even made me crack up, especially at the part with Nigel.

So many wonderful memories, so many years, and so much dedication. Congratulations on your own 10 Year Anniversary and as Miller might say, “thanks for all the fish!”

Hugh's avatar


Friday, June 13, 2008 11:51 AM

Hi Anitza,

Hopefully a lots more good memories yet to be made at the Aquarium in the coming years.


All blogs and comments represent the views of the individual authors and not necessarily those of the Aquarium.

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