Oh say can you sea – my week at the National Aquarium

On our way back from the sub races, Vin dropped me off to stay with the curator of large-fish exhibits and the dive safety officer of the National Aquarium, Holly Bourbon, along with her husband Billy and Wally the dog. I spent the first day with them catching up on my blogs, and reviewing footage from the sub races.


After that, we spent some time outside in the sun reviewing our plans for the week. We even figured out that Billy worked in my hometown for a while and spent time in the same social circles – what a small world! The next day, Holly, Billy and I visited Fort McHenry, where we met some of their friends from Massachusetts. We even saw the ship The Spirit of Baltimore II, which had just returned from Boston for the parade of sails! We toured the fort where the national anthem was written and was immersed in the history by volunteers dressed as soldiers who were playing instruments and firing off cannons (they were blanks, no worries!).

The view from Fort McHenry

After that, we went downtown to Camden Fields to watch the Orioles play baseball against Tampa. It was a great game to watch, especially because we were in the shade and out of the heat, and the Orioles won 7 to 1! That night, I discovered that the Bourbons are HUGE Carl Hiassen fans! For those of you who don’t know of any Hiassen works, I suggest you immediately stop reading this blog and get your eyes glued to one of the classics like Hoot. We discussed how Hiassen’s children’s books were a large influence on my passion for conservation, and they let me borrow one of the books from their collection!

Billy, Holly, and I at the Orioles game

The next day we started our work at the National Aquarium. Unfortunately, the day did not go as planned. After the sub races, I got a sinus infection (thanks a lot immune system!) so I was unable to dive.  But there was still plenty to see! I spent the day walking through the various exhibits with a huge grin. From black tip reef sharks to dolphins, to sloths I could have spent a whole day on one floor of the aquarium. Of course, there was a bit of aimless wandering through the aquarium as I tried to get my bearings, but eventually, I found Holly’s office and we spent some time in the dive room until the day was done.

The next day I spent the morning with Ashleigh in the offsite animal care center. Since it was a popular time for vacation, we were a bit short on volunteers. We started the day off taking temperatures of each tank and watched each animal to monitor their behaviors which can often indicate if they are progressing in their recovery. Afterward, we began food preparation for each of the animals – ranging from sharks to snakes. Food varied from fish flakes, fresh vegetables, and several different kinds of worms. Luckily all the patients happily ate – a good sign of a healthy critter! By the time we finished up with morning feedings, it was noontime, which meant I was off to the aquarium to spend the afternoon with Allan working behind the scenes in the different galleries! All the food for afternoon feedings was prepared in the morning by volunteers, so I helped Allan and some volunteers feed many of the animals in the smaller tanks. Some of my favorite animals I fed were the anemones, the electric eel, and Tullulah the octopus! As part of their enrichment for Tullulah, as most cephalopods are very intelligent, she often receives her food in jars and uses her tentacles to unscrew the lid to retrieve her food. She showed this trick off the day I was there, she was happy to receive a nice afternoon snack! After work, Holly, Billy and I went out to dinner, where of course I HAD to try the crab. Needless to say, it was delicious!

feeding Tullulah the octopus

The next day, Holly and I got in the Atlantic Coral Reef exhibit for a check out dive to see if I was proficient with my diving skills. She tested my buoyancy, had me clear my mask, and remove and don my scuba gear. Afterward, I joined some volunteers to watch them feed some of the animals on exhibit. I even had a few come nibble at my fingers! From hogfish to moray eels, to the cownose ray “moldy butt,” named so because of the coloration patterns on her back, each animal was attended to during the feeding. After breaking down our gear, one of the divers presented me with some ray teeth he found on the bottom of the exhibit!

That Thursday, I took a break from the aquarium, and journeyed to D.C. where I got to meet some of the employees at the Ocean Conservancy thanks to Ted Maney’s close relationship with the organization! I spent the morning speaking with some incredible individuals, who gladly talked with me about important issues such as marine debris and how to convince citizens and politicians that certain policies must be passed to protect our oceans!

Me at the Ocean Conservancy

Afterward, I joined a few employees for lunch at Sweetgreen, a salad and grain bowl restaurant committed to sustainability (all utensils are compostable)! I spent the afternoon sightseeing, I practically stumbled onto the White House lawn on my journey to the Museum of Natural History! While I only had a short time at the museum because I had to catch the train back to Baltimore, I certainly did not waste any time – I went straight to the first floor which is where Ocean Hall (I mean are you surprised that’s where I spent my time?) is located. There I saw a 45-foot replica of the North Atlantic Right Whale (a native to New England, with only about 450 individuals left), a giant squid, and – my personal favorite – an artistic representation of a coral reef made entirely out of ocean plastics!!!

On my last day at the aquarium, I joined some volunteers feeding the black tip reef exhibit. In fact, one of the volunteers was a familiar face from school who was also a member of the Plastic Ocean Project group that I am involved with! We first fed the zebra sharks – who are spotted, not striped despite their name – and then put out lettuce heads for Calypso a 500-pound green sea turtle as a distraction while we fed the black tip reef sharks. They are target trained with a white buoy; when they hit the buoy, or come close to it, volunteers toss them fish and sometimes squid. I enjoyed seeing this type of conditioning used because of my background in psychology!

After feeding these animals, we made a quick trip to the food prep room to wash the bins that held the shark food. Then we went behind the scenes of shark alley to feed some of the larger sharks, such as nurse sharks and sand tiger sharks. Each day, these sharks get fish fresh off the docks, but even still a few of the sharks are picky eaters that will only accept certain species. I was surprised by how gentle these creatures were when it came to feeding. It certainly was not a vicious attack that you often see on TV. These sharks were a perfect depiction of the graceful animals that are in the water. I’d like to thank Holly and her family for hosting me, nursing me back to health, and showing me the ins and outs of working at an aquarium!