Saturday, June 28, 2008

Age of Aquarium

When Noe and I came to Connecticut on our first house hunting trip, I liked exactly one thing about the entire state: the Mystic Aquarium and Institute for Exploration.

Honestly, that was it. We happened upon the aquarium by accident because it was right by our hotel and we noticed one night when we were treated to dinner at a somewhat tacky, touristy restaurant nearby. Before we went back to Michigan, we decided to go check it out.

Well, needless to say, Noe and I were both very impressed with the aquarium. It is not the biggest aquarium either of us have ever seen, but the exhibits are really well designed, the facility is clean and well laid-out, and they have some truly fantastic animals, including Steller sea lions - one of only five facilities in the world that houses them.

Since the aquarium was the first thing about Connecticut that I actually liked, I had to apply to be a volunteer when I saw the form on the website.

Most volunteers start as docents, or interpreters - the people you hear on the microphones describing the animals or hanging out by exhibits answering questions. After 100 hours of being a docent, you are eligible for other volunteer assignments, including physically working on exhibits and getting up close and personal with the animals.

Docent training was a little intense, mainly because it was packed into four full-day Saturday sessions (which included speeches and tests). I finished training last week and today worked my first day as an actual volunteer (well, I "shadowed" an experienced docent, a very nice guy named Chris).

I worked the morning shift (8:30-2:30) and rotated through three exhibits: the ray touch pool, Birds of the Outback, and Pribilof Islands.

I didn't really think much about rays before the docent training class, but I love them now. If you stick your hand in the tank and don't splash around too much, they'll come right up to you. You can pet them like a cat. Kids usually describe them as "slimy" but they are actually very silky and smooth to the touch (due to their coating of protective mucus - sorry, couldn't resist the gross-out fact).

I thought the ray touch pool was chaotic until we rotated to another interactive exhibit, Birds of the Outback. If you want to see something louder and rowdier than a room full of kids trying to touch cownose rays, just put said kids in an enclosed tent with 300 birds (cockatiels, parakeets, and rosellas - all native to Australia). Really, the most fun part about being in BotO is walking around with Captain, our "mascot" cockatiel, on your shoulder. It was sort of like being a pirate.

I got to finish my shift on one of my favorite exhibits at the aquarium, the Pribilof Islands exhibit. We were on Pool 2, the pool housing one harbor seal (Rocky), two northern fur seals - actually sea lions (Zhivago and Commander), and four of the aforementioned Stellers (Lucia, Juneau, LA, and Astro). Mainly what you do as a docent at Pool 2 is get on the microphone and alternate interesting seal/sea lion information with safety warnings (such as "do not dangle your baby over the edge of the ten-foot wall that seperates them from a pool of 500+ pound animals).

I adored my first day at the aquarium and spent the afternoon wishing I had signed up for the full day shift instead of the half (I figured that half days would be a good way to test out how much I was really going to like it). I can't wait to go back and maybe work on some different exhibits next week. And I really can't wait to get my 100 hours in so I can get even closer to these amazing animals.

1 comment:

Jennifer said...

I love stingrays!!! I have only felt one once and it had to be 7 years ago, but I remember how surprised I was about how soft they felt. I was hoping that I would get to pet one at the aquarium in Maui, but they did not have a petting area for stingrays:-(