An aquarist is an aquarium biologist who takes care of the fish, sharks, rays, turtles and marine invertebrates on display in aquarium exhibits.
A typical day for an aquarist starts early, because the exhibits in the aquarium have to be cleaned and prepared before the aquarium opens to visitors.
The aquarium is a hive of activity as the aquarists clean windows, siphon the exhibit substrates to remove any unwanted bits and pieces, scrub rockwork and move new fish into the exhibits or to quarantine if they need extra care. Armed with an array of buckets, brushes, a wetsuit and SCUBA diving gear, the aquarist is ready to do his job effectively.
Each aquarist is responsible for certain exhibits. The main focus is on the wellbeing and health of the animal. The water is tested every day to make sure that the highest standards in water quality are maintained. If the water parameters are out of synch the aquarist calls on the technical department to make the necessary adjustments to the incoming or outgoing water flow to obtain optimum levels.
The aquarist is also responsible for the diet or nutrition of the animals in the exhibit. Careful food portions are prepared for each exhibit in a fish kitchen where only the best quality food is obtained for the animals. The aquarist feeds the animals so that he can see which animals are eating, which are greedy and which are not eating. An animal that is not eating may indicate be unwell.
Constant research is done by reading articles and journals on nutrition, animal health, husbandry and enrichment, to ensure that the aquarist stays at the cutting edge and learns from international experts.
Accurate record keeping is a major part of daily duties. Detailed records track changes in the exhibit, the amount of food eaten by the animals, temperatures, behaviour and births. This is done to spot trends which indicate how to appropriately maintain animal wellbeing.
Aquarists devise exciting and challenging ways to offer enrichment to the animals in their exhibits. Food frozen into ice blocks, hidden in shells or in bottles provides feeding challenges for the animals.
In the quiet times behind the scenes, aquarists work on the research and development of new exhibits to keep visitors coming back for more. New lighting, exciting backdrops and interesting artefacts in the tanks create a feeling of achievement when new exhibits open to the public.
When a big fish move or shark move takes place, aquarists report for duty before the sun comes up, sometimes in the freezing cold on a winter’s morning. They work as a team to get the job done before the park opens to the public.
Aquarists work in the aquarium on the exhibits, in the quarantine facility or on the animal collections team to make up the curatorial department which is headed by a curator. Regular meetings and in-house training ensures that the team works together and keeps abreast of developments and trends in the aquarium industry.
An aquarium functions 365 days of the year because the animals have to be cared for and fed every day. Aquarists work on a roster basis so that there are enough staff to cover aquarium duties.
At the end of a busy day, which may have started before sunrise, the aquarist completes a daily checklist to make sure that everything has been completed. If the aquarist is about to take a few much-needed days off, a detailed handover is collated so that the aquarists on duty are clear on what needs doing.
In order to qualify for a job in the aquarium, a Bachelor of Science degree is a strong recommendation. In addition, hard work, dedication, a diving qualification and a passion for the sea are essential requirements for a budding aquarist.