#21: What's Happening - Thanksgiving Day at the Aquarium

It's Thanksgiving Day, and what does that mean? The Aquarium is closed for the day. But wait, what about the animals? They don't know it's Thanksgiving, and they expect to eat like any other day, so it's another day at the office for a few select aquarists ... like me!

An atypical scene out on the front plaza - no people.

High-calorie foods like donuts are a must for a diver, especially on Thanksgiving when it's important to carbo-load in preparation for the evening's turkey feast.

Brian is a dedicated Monday volunteer who came in to help us out on this holiday. Here, he is showing off his shark food prep skills. Today's menu consists of squid (Note: the coffee is NOT for the sharks).

The dive team: Me, John, and Brian.

We decided to go for a pre-feed swim this morning, to scrub out the algae from the surface skimmer gutters. If left untended, it grows into thick mats...

... and as you can see from this video, Myrtle the green sea turtle thinks it's really tasty!

And of course, Thanksgiving wouldn't be Thanksgiving without tossing the football around.

As we all know, Thanksgiving is for overeating. However, our sharks ended up not being very hungry, as shown here by Markham's (our male sand tiger shark) complete disinterest in this squid I offered him.

Happy Thanksgiving!



#20: Many People Ask - What do the fish eat?

"What do the sharks eat?" and "What do the sea turtles eat?" and "What do the fish eat?"

People often wonder how and what we feed our animals. We feed four times a day: twice in the morning (10:00am and 11:15am) and twice in the afternoon (2:30pm and 3:30pm). You can plan your visit to watch us dive in the tank using the daily schedule.

Shark Food
Here's our typical shark diet, which is supplemented with vitamins daily:

The sharks are the first ones to be fed in the morning and the last ones to eat at night. This helps us ensure that they won't "snack" on anything overnight. They get large fish and squid which is offered on a long stick to keep our hands away from those sharp teeth!

Myrtle Food
This is what Myrtle eats:

A lot of people ask about Myrtle's food too. She is a green sea turtle so she would normally eat a large quantity of sea grasses (she'd also get an occasional crab or fish while foraging). We give her a wide variety of greens, some protein (shrimp, clam, squid, or small fish), and nutrient-packed turtle gel (the green square in the upper right corner of the photo). She also eats broccoli, cabbage, romaine lettuce, green pepper, zucchini, and Brussels sprouts (her favorite). She also gets daily vitamins.

Other Sea Turtles Eat ...
The other sea turtles (Kemp's ridley and loggerheads) eat a mix of protein based on what they eat in the wild. They get a variety of capelin, squid, herring, smelt, shrimp, clam, and silversides. They also get vitamins and are fed using a stick so we don't get accidentally bitten (they have really strong jaws).

Fish Food
Here is what we feed some of the fishes:

We have many omnivores that like to chomp on peas and corn (the bottle pictured on the right). Little fish that tend to hide get fed krill (the bottle pictured on the left). We also bring heads of romaine lettuce in the tank and are instantly mobbed by angelfishes and blue tangs. They love eating greens. We also give them little bunches of mint and parsley which has good nutritional value.

Our Food Fridge
Here's a picture of inside the fridge after morning food prep:

The tupperware on the top shelf is filled with fish for surface feeding (porcupinefish, barracuda, needlefish, and cobia). Two of the yellow buckets on the bottom are filled with a variety of fish for the tarpon and permits. The other yellow bucket is filled with de-tailed shrimp (so we don't stab our hands--those tails are really sharp!) The stingrays love the shrimp feeding at 2:30pm. We encourage the rays to feed against the windows so people can get a great view of them eating.



#19: Many People Ask - What's All That Gear For?

One of the most frequent questions we Giant Ocean Tank divers get is, "What's all that stuff you're wearing for?" This is often followed up by, "Are you really going in there?" Well, the answer to the latter question is an enthusiastic "Yes!" (Yep - I love my job), and the reason we're able to go in "there" is exactly because of all that stuff.

I've corralled Sarah, a fellow staff diver for the GOT, to help me show what all that gear's for, so let's jump right in...

SCUBA diving (which, by the way, stands for Self Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus) is a lot like being an astronaut in outerspace. Both divers and astronauts venture into alien enviornments that aren't meant to support human life. Like astronauts, divers have to bring the air they breathe along with them. And, like astronauts, SCUBA divers float along weightlessly through their "underspace." However, accomplishing this task underwater requires a little help. Even the act of seeing clearly, or moving through the water, is made difficult by the physics of water. SCUBA gear to the rescue!

Let's take a look at Sarah as she so nicely models the gear a typical SCUBA diver wears...

That's a lot of stuff just to go swimming! But it's all necessary, and to be honest, once you're in the water you forget you're even wearing it. (Remember the whole weightless thing?) So let's break it down and shed all the mystery. Besides, Sarah's getting hot and tired wearing all that equipment!

Since a picture's worth a thousand words, let's start with some images ...

Front View (click to enlarge)

Right View (click to enlarge)
Back (click to enlarge)
Left View (click to enlarge)

Let's see what we've got, going from head to toe:

Mask: You have to wear a mask to see underwater because your eyes can't focus directly in water, they need an air space to look through. Plus a SCUBA mask covers your nose to prevent that pesky water up the nose thing.

Snorkel: A snorkel allows you to breathe while swimming around on the surface, so you don't have to use up the air you're carrying around in that tank on your back (more on that tank in a bit). Note - we don't use snorkels when we dive in the GOT.

Buoyancy Compensator (or 'BC'): This is the harness that connects the diver to that precious tank of air. But it plays another, equaly important role. It contains a bladder, sort of like a balloon, that the diver can add or remove air from. The more air in the bladder, the more the diver floats up; remove air and the diver sinks. Just the right amount of air and the diver can hover motionless. Pretty cool!

BC Inflator Hose: This is the thing that allows the diver to add / remove air from the BC. There's a pair of buttons on this hose, one to inflate the BC and one to deflate it. There's also a mouthpiece that allows the diver to manually inflate the BC by exhaling into it in the event of a malfunction.

Weightbelt: What? You mean you actually have to strap lead weights to your body to become weightless? Ironic, isn't it. Well, alot of this gear actually wants to float (including most of us humans) and on top of that, SCUBA divers often have to wear some form of thermal protection to keep them from getting cold underwater (Sarah is wearing a full wetsuit that is 7mm thick, which is just about as thick a wetsuit as they come). This thermal protection tends to be very buoyant. So to offset all this "floatyness" a diver needs to strap on some extra weight. Of course, there needs to be some way of ditching this weight during an emergency. The weightbelt has a "quick release" buckle, allowing the diver to ditch the weight with one hand. Kind of like a hot air balloonist dropping sandbags to float back up. This analogy works espically well with Sarah, because I often say she's full of hot air.

Tank: That cylindrical thing strapped to a diver's back is what holds the air the diver needs to breathe. In order to hold as much as possible in as small a tank as possible, the air is really crammed into the tank under high pressure when it's filled. As a matter of fact, that tank on Sarah's back holds enough air to fill an entire telephone booth, or about 80 cubic feet. (Humm --when was the last time you saw one of those?)

Regulator: This is the thing that provides the diver with the air from the tank on her back, and while doing so it has to convert the high pressure air from the tank into something more lung-friendly. It's made up of several components - the most important being "first stage", which attaches directly to the tank and knocks the high pressure in the tank down to an intermediate pressure; and the "second stage", which delivers a smooth breath of air everytime the diver inhales (and provides an exit path for the spent air when the divers exhales). There is also a gauge that tells the diver how much air is left in the tank - a pretty good thing to know! - and a backup second stage, often referred to as the "octopus". Finally there's a hose that connects to the inflator hose of the BC, to the tank, and by now you know what that's for...

Fins: When you aren't able to stand, it's kind of hard to walk, isn't it! How do most fish deal with this problem? Yep - they have fins. So it makes sense to give fins to humans when they want to explore a fish's home. Check out how easy it is to move in "underspace" when you're wearing fins...

Knife: No, it's not to fend off giant squid or maurading spies. Rather a dive knife is an important piece of safety gear, to be used if the diver ever finds herself entangled in anything from discarded fishing gear to long strands of kelp. Anything that can trap a diver underwater is a potential danger, and a proper dive knife could save the day. Note - we don't use knives in the GOT either!

So that about sums it up. Actually, the sky's the limit as to the diversity and complexity of the gear that's used for SCUBA diving, but I've covered the bases here.

Next time you visit the Aquarium look for one of the divers in the GOT and see if you can pick out each piece of gear. Or better yet, visit your local dive shop and take the plunge yourself!

Happy diving.



#18: Dive Buddies - Co-op Student

My name is Stephany and I am the Northeastern University co-op student for the New England Aquarium dive team. Every 6 months the Aquarium takes on college student from Northeastern as a full time staff member to help manage and care for the Giant Ocean Tank (GOT). This is such a unique and exciting experience and I am so fortunate to have been chosen for these past 6 months. I work for school credit and it's a nice break from school for a while, not to mention that I get to dive in the GOT everyday! I also understand what a great help I am to the staff and that is very fulfilling.

Me with my gear

It's so much fun to be able to feed the top predators in the GOT, including green morays, sand tiger sharks, and our ferocious nurse shark Bimini. (Just kidding, she's actually a big baby that sometimes sits on your lap so you wont forget to feed her).

Bimini the nurse shark

Feeding Galilee, one of the sand tiger sharks

Feeding a cownose ray

Not only did I get to partake in management of the GOT, but also in the healthcare of some of our turtles. I was able to help out and observe our annual turtle exams and help bring our smallest turtle, Scute, who is a Kemp's ridley, to Tufts Veterinary Hospital.

A picture from Scute's medical exam

It's also an amazing job because I get to meet a myriad of people from different cultures which means a lot to me. I was born in Venezuela and am fluent in both Spanish and English. I also learned Portuguese several years ago, allowing me to socialize and teach a larger, more diverse group of people which is a great experience. I enjoy teaching people about the 600+ fish and the 130+ different species in the GOT - it is incredibly rewarding. My language also allows me to help out at the Aquarium. For instance, I helped translate for a new media tour that will be put in place soon at the Aquarium. You can download the tour onto your iPod or other mobile device and get the inside story on the Aquarium's exhibits. You can check it out on this NEAq Insider page.

Feeding Myrtle the green sea turtle

My experience has been unforgettable and has helped me learn so much about myself and what I want to do in the future. It also has taught me how to lead a blue lifestyle and that "It's easy to make a difference for the oceans by making small changes in your daily life", in Spanish, "Es fácil mejorar los océanos al hacer pequeños cambios en nuestra vida diaria.", or in Portuguese, "É fácil melhorar os oceanos fazendo pequenas alterações em sua vida diaria".