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An Unlikely Aquarium Friend - Ivy Francis

11/28/2022 10:00 AM | John Wares (Administrator)

During college, all I knew was that I liked science and that I did NOT want to do anything business related. I couldn’t imagine myself in a 40 hour a week job, sitting at a desk from 9-5. All I knew was that I wanted something different, but the pieces weren’t even in my brain yet for me to put together and imagine the future. As I narrowed down my search, I took an ichthyology class, just because. As it turned out, fish were more interesting than I had previously thought. 

Fast forward, my last semester in college was interrupted by Covid-19. At this point, I dreamed of scuba diving and telling someone about the fish taxa present in a reef or river. I scoured the internet and could not find anything worthwhile- just a lot of ecological consulting jobs and “volunteer opportunities”. I figured I could apply to the Georgia Aquarium, where I knew there were a LOT of fish, and stay in town while the virus was still spreading around globally.

I then became an intern at the aquarium (yes, unpaid unfortunately). I didn’t realize which gallery I had applied for, but it turns out I managed to snag the one spot left that was continuing to have interns: the Ocean Voyager exhibit. If you are familiar with the Georgia Aquarium, you know that this is the massive exhibit with whale sharks, manta rays, and so so SO many other fish species. I had no idea what I was doing (how could I have?), but the team taught me so much about fish and how to take care of them in captivity. I managed to get hired on the team after only 2 months of interning. 

My daily tasks revolved around feeding the animals and making sure they were all healthy. We began the day with a whale shark feed, then a dive in the exhibit where you were either a safety diver for volunteers that were cleaning in the tank, or diving to feed the whale shark, which has you swimming backwards squirting krill into the mouth of a 30ft whale shark as he follows you. Then, we did some eagle ray feeds, and maybe an animal procedure or two, depending on the day. Next, there was a general broadcast feed for all the fish who wanted to participate, and in tandem Tank the green sea turtle was distracted from those antics with his breakfast of lettuce. After, we did manta ray feeds, another whale shark feed, and tong feeds some days. During tong feeds, animals that did not need to eat every day were fed in many different stations, all at the same time. Some stations include the sharks, zebra sharks, some various species of rays, and the cownose rays (who can be a real pain at the other stations if you aren’t distracting them). Luckily, after all this work is a much needed lunch break! Coming back from lunch, we fed the eagle rays again, did another broadcast/Tank feed, a manta feed, and finally, a final whale shark feed. Whenever there was time, we logged what we did all day and how the animals did during their feeding/training sessions.

One of my favorite animals there was a lonesome boy cownose ray named Butter. He had to be separated from the hundreds of girlfriends he had in the exhibit because they kept making more and more cownose rays, and frankly there were already enough. He was held in the holding pool to the side of the exhibit, which is a smaller pool where animals go to recover from procedures or if they’re babies. It’s a less stressful/competitive place than the huge tank. Anyways, he didn’t really have a purpose. He didn’t have a place to go, and couldn’t go back to the exhibit either. He just did circles around the edges of the holding pool, 24/7. So, I started to work on getting him to hand feed, and eventually target trained him with an orange ping pong paddle. I could have him do spins and follow me around, it was much easier to catch him for physical exams, and I even started to give him some back and belly pets (which were tolerated but not enjoyed). Eventually, the shark interaction pool at the aquarium wanted to take him because he was so well behaved. Unfortunately, even though he was the best trained ray there (in my opinion), he did not do well in the smaller pool and was a bit too pushy with wanting to participate to get treats… In the end, he ended up going to the offsite animal care facility to one day be prepared for a new home where he would thrive. It was moments like these with the fish that I saw how smart and motivated they could be. It also felt good to build a bond with the animals and help them form behaviors that were mutually beneficial.

After almost two years of working at the Georgia Aquarium, I did decide to pursue a completely different career in real estate. To be transparent, the aquarium did not provide a livable wage in Atlanta, so instead of working myself to the bone, I decided to pursue a more lucrative career. The good news is that this career gives me the time to be able to volunteer to dive at the aquarium, so I still get to see the animals in Ocean Voyager whenever I want. I also get to dive in other smaller exhibits throughout the aquarium that I was not able to dive in previously due to my strict schedule while I worked there. 

I am grateful for my college professors that helped me figure out my passion for science and animal care. Although it did not end up being a long term career path for me, I am thankful to have identified it and that I am able to volunteer my time to maintain my relationship between me and my passions. 


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