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Slower Season Still a Lot of Fun!

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Education | Volunteering | Fish

Monday, November 12, 2007


Well, it’s November and we’re in the slow time of the year here at the Aquarium of the Pacific on the weekdays. Soon, we will be inundated with scores of children and young adults, all the way from kindergarteners to college students, who come in school groups to learn. Thus, things have been more calm than they were during the busy summer months that included loads of children coming in groups from their summer camps.

This slower time certainly doesn’t mean that we haven’t been busy anyway, talking to those people who venture in to learn more about the Pacific Ocean, its inhabitants, and its ecosystems in a less hectic environment.

Early the other morning, during the first dive of the day in Blue Cavern, the quality of our staff once again was made evident, despite the fewer people around at the time. During dive shows, a presenter on the dry side of the exhibit talks via a waterproof microphone system with a diver inside the exhibit. The diver feeds the fish and chats with our guests.

With that diver is at least one other, who also goes around passing out food—the same quality, sustainable seafood that you would order in a local eatery—to the hungry denizens of the deep who swim around excitedly.

On this particular day, Staci, one of our presenters and bloggers, was ready to talk to Hopper, who looked out from his watery surroundings to see no one ready for the show.

This did not deter Hopper, however. As soon as he spied a woman off in the distance (near the Aquarium entrance into the Great Hall, opposite Blue Cavern) pushing a stroller, as a toddler scampered along next to her, Hopper sprang into action. He immediately started waving his arms and calling out to the woman to come to visit him at Blue Cavern, and this young mother readily obliged.

Both of her daughters, seeing Hopper dressed in his black wetsuit, with a mask on his face and bubbles surrounding his head, seemed a bit put off, however. One look at Hopper was all it took for the toddler to grab one of her mother’s legs and the baby to reach out from her stroller, trying to grab her mother’s other leg for comfort.

I chuckled, because the girls were so cute as they tried to figure out whether this “water man” was a monster or not. With their mom’s cajoling, they eventually relaxed and even waved at Hopper, always from their comfort zone near their mother, “just in case.”

A few minutes later, after the girls got into watching Hopper cavort on the other side of the window, two couples walked up to take a look. When Staci turned to talk to see their response to Hopper’s welcome, one of the two men turned to her. “German,” was all he said, indicating that he did not speak any English.

Staci explained this to Hopper, who immediately broke into German, explaining, from what I could tell, that he’d been there, and then told them the cities he has visited. You should have seen the surprised looks not only on Staci’s face, but also on those of our European guests.

The man tried to answer Hopper, something that guests do regularly, but this time Staci could not then relate the message to Hopper, because she does not speak German.

Staci looked confused for a split second, but recovered quickly, promptly solving the communication problem by handing the microphone to the man, who proceeded to have a conversation with Hopper, all in his native tongue. It was great to see them communicating like that. You’d be amazed at the various languages spoken by our volunteers and paid staff members!

Another experience I had at Blue Cavern actually took place this past summer, when two boys, ages 6 and 8, were excited at seeing the eels swim around in this habitat, that is a replica of a dive spot off nearby Catalina Island. I really enjoyed the antics of these two young guests, who were totally taken by the California morays, Gymnothorax mordax.

When I walked up to them, I heard one of the boys excitedly point the eel out to his older brother, who then turned to me to ask why it was swimming as he was–at this point, it was going up toward the top of the exhibit, but it had its head curved downward so that it looked like an upside-down hook. I couldn’t explain that particular behavior, but we enjoyed talking about the eel nonetheless.

I did explain to them that eels, which are ambush predators (meaning that they lie in wait for prey to swim by without seeing them) don’t usually swim around in the water, unprotected like that. Rather, they usually hide out in the crevices of rocks and dash out to grab a bite to eat when it haplessly happens to swim past, then return immediately to the safety of the rocks.

The reason these eels swim around In Blue Cavern, I told them, is because they have no predators there and they seem to know it. They, along with the eels we have in other exhibits, get comfortable swimming around, and are really a beautiful sight to see when they do, their ribbon-like bodies undulating gracefully in the water.

Because they were so excited by the eels, the only creatures on which they really focused in Blue Cavern, I thought I’d show them one of my favorite California morays, this one a resident of our Southern California/Baja gallery. The moray in question lives with a fellow moray and a number of California spiny lobsters, Panuliris interruptus.

Whenever I point out this particular eel, I ask our guests to compare its head to that of its friend, and that’s when they notice that one has a dent in its head. That’s when I tell them that the eel with the funny shaped head actually had a benign tumor on its brain, and that our aqua-vet, Dr. Lance, removed it more than a year ago, giving it a new lease on life.

The boys could not believe their ears, and wondered how someone performs surgery on a fish, and how did anyone figure out that it had a tumor in the first place!

It all starts with an aquarist noticing odd behavior in one of our animals. This could include a lack of appetite, for example. In the case of this eel, a bulge started to form on its head, among other things, and it was obvious that a visit with the doctor was in order..

But how is the surgery performed? The first time I heard about such surgeries, I envisioned Dr. Lance and his assistants donning diving gear to get into the water with the ailing fish, but that’s not what they do. Instead, they take the fish, in this case our eel friend, out of a given exhibit, and put it in an aquarium all by itself. They then put anesthesia in the water to get it ready for surgery.

At this point, the doctor and his helpers take their patient out of the water completely, and keep it alive by running salt water mixed with anesthesia through its gills, enabling it to breathe while at the same time keeping it sedated.

Then they put the fish on a foam pillow of sorts, so that Dr. Lance can perform the surgery, after which they return the fish to its solitary aquarium, where it starts its recovery, going back to its exhibit only once Dr. Lance is certain that it is well again.

That’s pretty amazing, don’t you think? Now you’ll have to come to see this eel with the dented head for yourselves so you can see, first-hand, how healthy it looks today. That’s one lucky eel, if you ask me!

Slower Season Still a Lot of Fun!
This is a closeup of the eel that had the brain surgery, with the dent in its head clearly visible.  | Josie Cabiglio

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Wednesday, November 21, 2007 09:30 PM

Great stories!  Who would have thought that they could do brain surgery on an eel.  I’ll definitely have to look for the eel with dented head next time I’m there.

Josie's avatar


Monday, November 26, 2007 05:43 PM

Hi Shalea!

You’ll love our little eel with the dent in its head. It’s a really cool fish! Maybe we’ll run into each other at its exhibit the next time you’re in.

Take care, Josie :D

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Kendle Hanson

Tuesday, November 27, 2007 08:21 PM


Great blog.  Loved your stories about our guests and Dr Lance’s surgery on the eel.  Also thanks for being such a wonderful Tuesday captain for our volunteers.

Josie's avatar


Wednesday, November 28, 2007 07:34 AM

Kendle, you’re too sweet for words! I’m glad you’re back at the Aquarium and hope that the rest of your ankle’s recovery goes very quickly. :D

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