Wednesday, February 23, 2011

What do Caribbean fish have to do with penguins?

Taking care of 85-plus penguins keeps the penguin staff and volunteers very busy each day (with feeding, cleaning and the like); but recently I have needed to squeeze in a little study time into my day. And it is not to learn more about penguins (even though there is always something new to learn). I am studying my Caribbean fish identification.

Why do I need to be able to identify various species of Caribbean fish? Well, I will be one of three Aquarium staff members who will be going down to the Bahamas to take part in our annual Bahamas Collection Expedition this spring  We will be living aboard a dive boat, and scuba diving to collect fish to return to our exhibits in Boston.

And we need your help!

A closer look at my study materials

In addition to the Aquarium staff, certified scuba divers can join us in this unique "working vacation."  There are still spots available for this year's trip in April, click here for more information on this once and a lifetime opportunity. You can also experience this unique adventure through the most recent Bahamas Expedition Blog—meet the divers, see the sights underwater and get a feel for live aboard a working research vessel.

Hope to see you in the Bahamas!

– Andrea

Friday, February 11, 2011

Who's Who: Andrea

Over the past couple months, our loyal blog readers have learned a lot about the penguins and their exhibit at the New England Aquarium. Well now we'd like to tell you a little bit more about ourselves!

My name is Andrea and I have been a penguin biologist here at the Aquarium for three years. The time just flies by! It seems like only yesterday (when it was actually six years ago) that I first applied to be a volunteer at the Aquarium. 

If you have ever wondered what it takes to be a penguin biologist or what it is like working with over 80 penguins everyday, continue reading as I answer some commonly asked questions about working with penguins here at the Aquarium.

Q. What made you first realize that you wanted to work with marine animals as a career?

When I was growing up I think I spent more time in the water than dry. If I wasn’t at swim practice I was either playing in the pool or at the beach. I loved being in the water! I also loved animals! So I knew at a pretty young age that I wanted to merge my two loves and work with marine animals, the exact kind of animals I wanted to work with would change constantly.

Here is a photo of me, my sister and cousins at the beach; can you guess which one is me?  Even at a young age I was always interested in animals. (If you couldn’t figure it out I am the one on the right too busy looking at a hermit crab to smile at the camera.)

Q. What sort of educational background do you have?

I received a Bachelor of Science degree at UMASS Dartmouth, where my major was marine biology.

Q. How did you first break into the New England Aquarium?

It actually took me visiting SeaWorld in Florida during my junior year of college to become interested in volunteering at the Aquarium. I was asking one of the employees who was working with the dolphins if they had any tips on how to find a career working with marine animals. She suggested getting as much experience possible. She also asked where I was from, and when I said Massachusetts she mentioned that the New England Aquarium is a great place and I should look there. As soon as I came home I applied to be a visitor education volunteer. 

Visiting SeaWorld as a junior in college

Little did I know that six years after that visit to SeaWorld in college that I would be going to SeaWorld again to pick up seven rockhopper penguins to drive back to Boston to join our colony.

Q. Did volunteering naturally lead to a full time position?

Technically it did, but it took many years, many different departments and a lot of patience. After I spent about a year as a visitor education volunteer I became a penguin colony volunteer. Then I got a part time job at the Aquarium in the Education department. After that, I got the opportunity to become a temporary staff member in the penguin area. I spent about two years splitting my time between education and penguins until a full time penguin aquarist position opened up.

Q. What's the best part about working with the penguins?

The best part of working with the penguins is getting to know each penguin’s unique personalities, and being able to build relationships with all of them.

Q. Have you had an opportunity to work with other animals at the New England Aquarium?

While volunteering and working in the Education department, I got the opportunity to work with a lot of small presentation animals, like hermit crabs and sea stars. I also got to work with some more exotic animals like green anacondas and an alligator snapping turtle. Now, as a penguin aquarist I am also cross trained in all the feeding dives for the Giant Ocean Tank. I actually spent about six months working primarily in the GOT where I got a lot of experience working with the 600-plus animals that live there. (I even wrote a few blogs while working in the Giant Ocean Tank.)

In April I will be joining two other Aquarium staff members and 10 participants on the Spring 2011 Bahamas Collecting Exhibition to the Bahamas, where I will be SCUBA diving every day to collect animals for our exhibits in Boston. And don’t worry SCUBA diving won’t stop me from blogging! (For any dive enthusiasts out there, we have only a few slots left for participants to join us! Click here for more information about how you can take part. And check out some blog posts from recent Bahamas expedition here and here for a taste of this amazing experience!)

 That's me scuba diving in the GOT.

Q. Do you have any advice for aspiring penguin aquarists?

Get as much experience as you can as early as you can. The best way to do that is by volunteering. Not only will it introduce you to future employers but it will help you figure out if a career working with animals is right for you. It is a unique line of work often involving unglamorous tasks and is not always for everyone.

Stay tuned to meet more of the penguin staff as they answer more questions about working with penguins.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

FAQ: What kind of skills are needed to care for penguins?

Many of our penguin volunteers (me included) decided to become a volunteer to gain some experience that would be valuable when looking for a job working with animals. As a penguin volunteer you definitely gain a lot of experience feeding and learning how to care for the penguins, but there are many other skills that you might not have expected to learn while taking care of the penguins.

Mountain Climbing
Most penguin species live in pretty harsh habitats with rocky shorelines; the six man-made fiberglass islands in the exhibit were designed to replicate the habitat of these penguins in the wild. Some of these islands can be quite treacherous for us to move around on especially when you are wearing a cumbersome wetsuit carrying a bucket of fish. Some days I wish I brought in my climbing harness.

Climbing around (or slipping) on the islands and general wear and tear from everyday use sometimes causes our wetsuits to rip or get small holes in them. Before we get a new wetsuit we will patch the old one if possible. This is very similar to darning your socks or patching your jeans except we us dental floss instead of thread since it holds up better in the water.

Hose wrapping
It may seem pretty easy but neatly wrapping two 50-foot hoses in a 2-foot space is definitely quite a skill. Those hoses can get pretty tangled and it can take some time, patience and attention to details to put them away neatly. This skill could come in handy if you wanted to become a firefighter.

Now that's a tangled hose.

It takes a lot of skill to take a messy nest of hoses and put them away nicely.

Shower cleaning and laundry
Soap scum and mildew are inventible in any shower. The shower we use behind the scenes to get in and out of our wetsuits is no exception, especially when you have up to 8 people showering in it two to four times a day! With that many people using the shower we also go through a lot of towels. Whether or not you clean your own shower or do your own laundry at home, as a volunteer you will eventually be asked to clean the penguin department shower and do some laundry.

Adding Fractions
In addition to counting how many fish each individual penguin eats we also record how many pounds of fish each species eats in a day.  This requires a little bit of mental math. We fill each food bucket to a specific weight then weigh the buckets when we are done with the two daily feedings, then take the difference and you have the pounds of fish eaten in each feed. We add the two feeding totals together.  This math often involves adding and subtracting fractions, which most of us have not done since we were back in elementary school. I guess math teachers are right when they say that one day you would need to use math in the “real world.”

Public Speaking
The open design of the penguin exhibit gives our visitors an up close and personal view of the penguins as well as the staff and volunteers working in the exhibit. Whether answering a quick question from a visitor or doing a microphoned penguin presentation from inside the exhibit, interacting with the public is a big part of our daily routine. For most people public speaking is a little scary but the staff and senior volunteers conquer their fear twice daily to teach thousands of visitors about penguins. 


- Andrea

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Many People Ask: Why do those penguins have yellow eyebrows?

Visit the penguins! Buy your tickets online—we're waiving online ticketing surcharges right now.

A lot of people wonder about the distinctive yellow feathers, or crests, that are unique to our rockhopper penguins.

Not only do these crests help visitors distinguish rockhoppers from the two other species that live here — African and little blue — they also help the rockhoppers recognize their own species. This is especially useful while the penguins are swimming!

The crests are also used by nesting penguins to attract a mate. While shaking their heads rapidly, the crests whirl around and look very impressive to the opposite sex.

The Northern and Southern rockhoppers have different kinds of crests. Can you tell the difference?