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Why My Hands Smell Like Dead Fish

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Imagine waking up promptly at 7:30, riding your bicycle for five minutes to your local aquarium to volunteer and then have your first task at 8:30 in the morning be to go run over to the freezer chill room (at a cozy temperature of 7 degrees) and grab a crate of fish for defrosting. This is exactly what I did this morning.

I ran off to another part of the aquarium and started to siphon a tank, tumbling the sand so that it looked fresh and clean. I spent about a month meticulously filling out applications and waiting for an interview to be a part of this place, and now I'm here. It's not easy work, I came home today covered in fish guts, algae and seawater, but it's a brilliant introduction into the world of marine organism care and marine biology.

I returned to the dead fish, now defrosted and floating in a pool of their own icy blood; and picked out a few nice specimens to put in bowls to feed the seals, weighing them at a precise 3 lbs each. Don't forget to take the very last fish on the pile and bend it at the neck so that you can stuff some pills into the gill socket; seals can't get all their essential nutrients from dead fish so we have to manually insert vitamins.

After feeding and training the seals, I return to the aquarium behind the scenes. It's strange to suddenly be above the pretty tanks that I've viewed in my youth, caring for the animals that entertained me so well. I prepare some food for the fish, cutting up pieces of cold mussel, squid and vegetable gel to feed them a balanced diet. Throwing in a pinch of food is all it takes to stir up a ruckus in a tank. The biggest commotion is in the cylindrical tank that contains a school of Palmettas and Jacks, each about 3 feet long. They splash the surface as food is dropped in like the great predators they are; snapping and fighting for the best morsels, sometimes even causing the food to be launched into the air from their flailing fins.

In a calmer tank the lobsters saunter out on elegant tiptoe as they smell the squid juice in the water, looking like dressage horses as they putter silently towards the food and sweep it up with their feelers into their mouths. The lionfish tank is ominous and dark and the beautiful but deadly poisonous fish rise from the shadows; lazy, they will only eat if food is dropped directly in front of their mouths.

After feeding is finished, me, another junior volunteer and a staff member drain a tank to about a foot or less of water and spend the remainder of our session catching the large fish which somehow find a place to hide in such shallow water. Two people are in the tank with a net each, wrangling the fish like bulls, we'd use our hands but the fish have spikes. One person is out of the water, able to take the full nets form us and dump them into a holding tank.

After everything's out, everyone scrubs the rocks on the side of the tank to get off the algae which has been accumulating all week, we rinse the sides and are occasionally interrupted by stray small fish which come out of hiding for fear of drowning and flop around on the near dryness, for these we can use our bare hands to catch.

I love working at the aquarium, I work on Sundays from 8:30 to 12:00 and in that time a lot is accomplished. I'll be volunteering here for at least four months, and each new month is a new rotation. The first month I occupied my time at Local Tails, a youth exhibit containing a touch pool and a few other marine tanks and also terrestrials like toads, tortoises, hermit crabs and lizards. This month, I'll be working in the aquarium; the two other rations being the zoo and the education department.


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