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Aquarium Stories

The Aquarium has touched many people in its 20 years. Discover some of their stories.

Russ Parsons in front of Blue Cavern

Russ Parsons in front of Blue Cavern Credit: Aquarium of the Pacific

Bill Wolski Portrait

Bill Wolski

Bill Wolski lives in Lomita, California. He is dedicated to picking up trash. Originally from Cleveland, Ohio, he moved to California about fifteen years ago. Within a year of his move, he sought out the Aquarium as a place to visit with friends and family.

In 2011 his sister-in-law decided to celebrate her birthday with a trip to the Aquarium. The group attended a Seals and Sea Lions show and heard a presentation from a staff member that included information about the Aquarium’s seals and sea lions, their behaviors, and where these animals live in the wild. The show concluded with the presenter displaying a large poster with a photo of a marina choked with trash floating on the water. When she revealed that the photo had been taken just beyond the Aquarium in the Long Beach Harbor after a storm, Wolski was astonished. The staff member asked, what would happen if we all picked up one piece of trash every day? “It really resonated with me, and to this day I’ve never forgotten that message,” he says.

That night while out walking the dogs with his wife, he was inspired to begin picking up trash. He first committed to just picking up one item of litter on each walk, but he soon realized he couldn’t “unsee” the trash on sidewalks, beaches, and in gutters. In 2014 he made a New Year’s resolution to pick up 1,000 pieces of trash. When he collected over 100 pieces in one day, he realized he should increase his goal number. By August of that year he had picked up 30,000 pieces of trash and had not missed a single day. The next year, he continued his mission of picking up trash every day.

Inspired by the impact the Aquarium’s message had on him years before, he decided to try and spread the message to others. He wrote articles on simple ways to go green and save money for his company’s employee newsletter to a positive response from his coworkers, who would report back to him their ideas for being environmentally friendly. When he shared posts on Facebook about his trash-collecting efforts, his friends would respond with photos of them or their children also collecting trash as far away as his home state of Ohio.

“The Aquarium’s message worked for me, and it’s worked for dozens of other people who have read my message and felt my impact,” he says. “I feel it’s our responsibility to care for this planet and leave as small an impact as humanly possible. I’m grateful for that day at the Aquarium. What the Aquarium does has a real, physical, measureable, positive effect.”

Abby Henderson portrait

Abby Henderson

Abby Henderson grew up with the Aquarium—literally. She was born in the same year as the Aquarium’s public opening, 1998, and her parents purchased memberships in December 1997. Today, she is studying marine biology and hopes for a career in conservation work, and she traces these aspirations to her childhood days spent at the Aquarium.

Henderson’s family members share a love of the ocean, having backgrounds working on boats and fishing. Plus, most are SCUBA-certified divers, she says. Her father taught her his hobby of maintaining home aquariums. He had a 100-gallon tank full of fish that she grew up admiring. Together with her parents, grandparents, and cousins, Henderson would come to the Aquarium almost every weekend, she says. The Aquarium began to feel like a second home to her.

Henderson began volunteering at the Aquarium in the education department in 2016 and moved to the husbandry department the following year. One of her favorite duties is preparing food for the animals, especially the sharks. She has come to know certain animals’ food preferences and enjoys preparing their food with care. She says is glad she started as a volunteer in education because it gave her the chance to build her animal knowledge and gain skills talking to Aquarium visitors and share the fun of learning and discovery with them.

“Every time I come here, I always find something new,” she says.

When she learned about the Aquarium’s involvement with a project in Guam that is working to restore coral reefs, it brought her ideas about a future career into focus. She also hopes to work on conservation projects out in the field someday, learning about populations of wild animals and the threats they face to create a better future for ecosystems.

Russ Parsons portrait

Russ Parsons

“Long Beach was born by the sea. How appropriate, then, that it is being reborn there as well. There have been many milestones along the city’s path from its lowest point in the mid-1990s to today, but the opening of the Aquarium of the Pacific was certainly one of the most momentous. It’s impossible to think of Long Beach being where it is today without the aquarium.

My wife, who was the City of Long Beach’s public information officer at the time, loves to tell of putting on the press conference for the ground breaking for the parking garage (it was funded before the aquarium itself). She had to bring in a portable dance floor to support the chairs because the entire area was nothing but one big, sodden mudflat. Today it is a bustling waterfront — one of Long Beach’s crown jewels — and the aquarium is the centerpiece.

Our family was, of course, charter members of the Aquarium of the Pacific and have been regular visitors since it opened. When we entertain out-of-town guests, that’s the first place we go. Four or five times a year we go on one of the whale watches. When there is an interesting speaker, we’re there. I’ve even participated in a few speaking engagements myself.

Recently, my own visits have become even more regular. When I retired from running the Los Angeles Times food section a couple of years ago, one of the first things I did was sign up to become one of the more than 1,000 volunteers who help the paid staff keep the aquarium running. 

Early every Tuesday morning, I report for duty. First, I walk down to the boat docks and as the sun comes up, I stroll slowly back and forth, dragging a fine net collecting plankton that is then grown out to feed some of the smaller animals. Then I do my chores: changing filter bags and changing bleach buckets. 

I spend the last few hours helping to prepare food for some of the bigger animals. Surrounded by other volunteers, I clean and chop pounds of squid, shrimp, clams and fish. Honestly, if you could see how well our animals eat…I sometimes think all I need to do is bring in some red wine and tomato sauce and I could make a killer cioppino for everybody.   Instead, it all goes to feed other fish. I might put on waders and feed the rays in the shorebirds exhibit. The bat rays bump up against my legs like hungry puppies. Or I might feed the brightly colored fish in the Gulf of California. It’s like walking into a movie. One of the highlights, always, was getting to feed Gilligan, the giant Pacific octopus. She was a feisty little beast, but once she’s been fed she loved to be petted.

But the biggest treat of all for me is walking around the aquarium after I’m done, listening to the visiting children laugh and seeing their eyes light up when they get to touch a real anemone or jellyfish and watching even the most responsible-seeming adults break into huge kid-like grins as an otter swims by upside down. 

There’s magic at the heart of Long Beach, and you can find it at the aquarium.”

— Russ Parsons, former food editor at the Los Angeles Times, who now volunteers at the Aquarium, preparing food for and feeding the animals

Eliza with otter

Eliza Lee

“Aquarium of the Pacific is the place where I became a fiancée. My husband set up a sea otter private feeding, and the aquarium staff said they had a souvenir for supporting the aquarium! This was all a plan from my husband, and the souvenir was a ring and a photo book of all our memories. We love supporting all the research the aquarium undertakes and all the education that takes place at the aquarium!”

Brian with lorikeets

Brian Bixby

“Our son, Liam, fell in love with the Aquarium of the Pacific while a still a toddler. A decade later, he is a family volunteer in the education department with over 250 hours of service. Our family loves spending time together at the aquarium and have been welcomed by a wonderful group of staff members and fellow volunteers!”

Samantha with sea lion

Samantha Daneman

“I have always been an animal lover. I’m the first in line to touch a jellyfish, feed a lorikeet, or feel a shark. As soon as I moved out to California, a membership to Aquarium of the Pacific made it to the top of the list. As a member of four years, I have a planned route. One day in March of 2014, my then boyfriend, a couple of friends, and I are walking through the aquarium. Jon, the boyfriend, told me we needed to leave HALF WAY THROUGH. I couldn’t believe it. We’ve never skipped parts of the aquarium. He walked me up to the front desk and asked to speak with Jimmy. Jimmy took our group through a backroom, picking up a bucket of fish along the way. I knew I was going on a surprise animal encounter! Jimmy led us in to the sea lion exhibit, where we met Parker. After some play time (saluting, jumping, dancing, and kisses) with Parker, Jimmy taught us about husbandry. Parker definitely knows what to do to allow his human friends to keep him happy and healthy. Then, Jimmy offered me the opportunity to do a special behavior with Parker. An aquarium employee would toss a buoy, Parker would find it, and return it back to me. When Parker came out of the water with the buoy, I reluctantly took it from him (he is a 600 lbs, male sea lion after all), and on the buoy was a special message. The note read “Will you marry me?” and behind me was Jon, on one knee, with a ring. I quickly said yes, and even Parker the sea lion barked with delight. Now, more than three years later, my husband and I still love visiting the Aquarium of the Pacific, and Parker, the sea lion, who played a key part in it all.”

Celebrating 20 Years of Partnerships

Find out what the Aquarium means to some of our charter supporters, what projects they’re most proud of, and what Aquarium animals have captured their hearts over the years. The Aquarium has relied on the generosity of our members and donors since our doors opened in 1998, and we are grateful for everything our partners have helped us achieve.

Randi Kisner

“I first came to the Aquarium in 1999 on a kindergarten field trip. I had no idea at the time the aquarium was new. It was just something we began doing every year throughout elementary school. The Aquarium inspired me to learn about the oceans, learn about nature, and how to best protect the environment. As an adult, I support the Aquarium through an annual membership. It is still my favorite place to go. It has influenced the way I see the world and it continues to inspire great compassion for the beautiful world we live in. I’m grateful for the many years I have been able to enjoy the Aquarium. I look forward to many more.”

Danielle Pulsipher

“I grew up going to the aquarium. It inspired me to learn more and more about our oceans. My mom would always say that she saw a change in me as we entered the door and saw the blue whale. Little did I know, as a result of the aquarium’s impact on my life, I have now dedicated my life to protecting and learning about our oceans. Every memory I have is special because my life has been forever changed because of it. I now volunteer there as a thank you for your work and love for helping kids like me see the beauty in the water.”

Dulce Jaramillo

“I’ve been coming to the aquarium since high school. As part of a marine science academy we went to different aquariums across California. The Aquarium of the Pacific has been one of the reasons why I chose to study marine biology, being exposed to such diversity within my home state inspired me to pursue this career. Thank you for being a part of this amazing community and exposing people to such incredible habitats!”

Erica Sands

“In 1999 my husband and I met in high school. We spent our prom at the aquarium. We got to prom early that night and had a chance to walk around the exhibits. During prom we danced and celebrated under the whale. Today, we take our daughter. The aquarium has a lot of meaning to our family.”

Doreen Parker

The last time we were there, my husband had lost his hair from chemo treatments for esophageal cancer and was wearing a little knit cap. He really enjoyed feeding the lorikeets. A happy memory, now that he’s gone. We always loved spending time at the Aquarium together. I’m very proud to be a Charter Member!