California is known for quite a few things. They’ve got great wine, famous celebrities, tons of health food, and a stretch of the beautiful Pacific Coast. You can usually find muscled surfers and bronzed blondes hanging out around its frothy waves, but travel a few hundred feet further out and you’ll see a completely different set of beach-lovers: fish, crabs, jellies, and other water-breathing creatures.
The Birch Aquarium in San Diego gives Californians a chance to say “Hello” to their aquatic neighbors, all without having to strap on scuba gear. From time to time, I like to include industry expertise from an important speaker, and this week I was able to speak with Fernando Nosratpour, the Aquarium Curator for the Birch Aquarium. He shared some tidbits of what life is like in the land of sun, surf, and seahorses.
Tell us a little bit about yourself and your role at the Birch Aquarium.
I’m the interim Aquarium Curator at Birch Aquarium at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, CA. I’ve been in this role for about two years. I’m responsible for the collection of fishes and invertebrates as well as a staff of nine (aquarists, Sr. aquarists and co-curator). My responsibilities include planning future exhibits, conservation programs, and general direction with regard to our live exhibits.
My interest in aquariums started at the age of 10 with my first freshwater aquarium. I majored in biology at San Diego State University. While attending college, I volunteered an afternoon each week at the former Scripps Aquarium. Just before graduation, I was hired as an assistant aquarist. Two years later, I became an aquarist at Monterey Bay Aquarium. I returned to San Diego two years later to help build the new Birch Aquarium at Scripps. I’ve been here since 1992 and have worked my way up through the aquarist ranks.
Can you tell us what it’s like working at an aquarium?
A lot of our work, as you may expect, involves cleaning tanks and maintenance of life support systems. Since our doors are open nearly every day (except Christmas, Thanksgiving and New Year’s Days), we do our best to keep our aquariums as clean as possible. This means a lot of window scrubbing, gravel vacuuming, water changes, and even SCUBA diving to keep our 70,000 gallon kelp tank clean. There are also important daily tasks such as taking tank temperatures, making rounds of all the exhibits, and holding tanks to make sure pumps, filters, lights, etc. are functioning properly. After checking our tanks and cleaning them, we usually start preparing food for our animals. Each Aquarist has her/his own gallery (area) of exhibits to care for (e.g. seahorses, tropicals, Southern California, quarantine) and will prep the food [that’s] necessary for any particular day.
It’s a bit different every day. We normally come into work expecting to accomplish certain tasks. But unexpected things always seem to happen. For example, we may have fish spawning or giving birth, so we shift into another gear to prepare for rearing the young (tank space, live food, etc.).
Or, we may have a specimen come down with a disease and must remove the fish from display, set up a treatment tank, and consult aquarists or veterinarians on a treatment plan. The specimen could be large or small, which makes a big difference on how much time is spent.
There are days where we may be called upon to provide a behind-the-scenes tour for VIPs or go collecting (boating, SCUBA, tide pooling, etc.). I think this variety is something that makes our work fun.
Is it stressful at times, or is it hard to get stressed when you’re surrounded by so much beauty?
At times it can be a little stressful. There are occasional power outages when we’re trying to maintain systems or sometimes a particular life support system breaks down in the middle of the night. It can also be stressful when we’re trying to put together a new exhibit and we’re close to the opening date. But yes, the animals/aquariums are what helps relax and inspire us. We’re also very fortunate to be located next to the ocean in a very beautiful part of the country. The view we have from our outdoor tide pool exhibits is great medicine for stress!
Have you made any gilled friends?
I think so. One of my “best friends” is a Goldspotted Spinefoot (Siganus punctuatus). While cleaning this fish’s particular tank, it will sometimes “graze” on my arm. Other times it might just rest there. It was a bit surprising the first time it happened, as this genus is known for its venomous spines, but I found that its fins were never raised. I feel I have a special bond with this fish!
What makes the Birch Aquarium stand out?
Birch Aquarium at Scripps is unique in that it’s one of only a few public aquariums that is part of a university, (University of California, San Diego). Part of Birch Aquarium’s mission is to interpret Scripps Oceanography research for our visitors. We try to provide displays with fishes and invertebrates that reflect some of the research [that’s] happening. Being part of an institution with approximately 400 researchers provides opportunities for us, as aquarists, to collaborate. We have assisted quite a few researchers in supplying them with coral fragments grown from our propagation program. We’ve also had a number of researchers test a new type of equipment with us before taking it out in the field. We have even consulted with tank set-ups for their labs. There is a sense that we are, at least in a small way, helping science, and this goes beyond the satisfaction we get from maintaining our exhibits.
In the aquarium field, we’re known for our seahorse, jelly, and coral propagation programs. Our live exhibits showcase fishes and invertebrates from the Pacific Northwest, Southern California, the Gulf of California, and Tropical South Pacific. We also have changing/temporary displays. We currently exhibit “Feeling the Heat”, “The Climate Challenge” and “There’s Something About Seahorses.”
Where do the creatures in your aquarium come from?
They come from a variety of places. We collect most of our local fishes and invertebrates by tidepooling and SCUBA diving. We use plankton nets to collect some types of jellies. Some of our specimens also come from local fishermen. We occasionally go on collecting trips to Washington state for our Pacific Northwest animals or to the Gulf of California for our Mexican species. Most of our South Pacific tropicals are purchased from wholesalers in Los Angeles. We trade specimens with other public aquarium as well. We are lucky enough to acquire donations from local hobbyists. And from time to time we get donations from US Fish and Wildlife confiscations.
Do visitors seem to have a favorite exhibit at the aquarium?
Yes, the top 3 exhibits are the Kelp Tank, There’s Something About Seahorses and the Jelly exhibits.
Can you tell us about your seahorse exhibit?
The exhibit is called “There’s Something About Seahorses.” This is our second seahorse exhibit. The first one some years ago was very popular, so we decided to exhibit them again. This time around, we are showcasing seahorses in different habitats (e.g. coral reef, mangrove forest, eel grass beds, and temperate reef). We also have a number of interactive displays where visitors have the chance to learn about what makes a seahorse a fish, what some human impacts to seahorses are, and how seahorses are related to pipefish and seadragons. There’s a section of the exhibit in which young children can play with seahorse plush animals and camouflage them in three different habitats. We also display a replica of our seahorse nursery. Here visitors can see what it takes to raise and care for baby seahorses. Probably the most popular part of the exhibit are the weedy and leafy seadragon tanks.
Do the caretakers at the aquarium encounter particularly difficult struggles trying to get so many different creatures to coexist?
For the most part, no. We have a “handbook” or guide for each of our exhibits. The guide has a list of potential animals that go into that particular tank and the maximum number of each species allowed. The list is based on fish behavior, tank size, and filtration capacity. We refer to this handbook when adding animals. We also consult each other if there’s an opportunity to display a new animal that’s not listed in our handbook.
Do you have any interesting or funny stories about the aquarium?
I have a few. I love listening to visitors when they try to pronounce names of certain fishes. One day I heard a mom try to pronounce “Banggai Cardinalfish” for her child. She called it the “Bengay cardinal fish!”
Another time a hobbyist kindly donated a porcupine pufferfish to us. As with all new fishes, there is a one month quarantine period. During quarantine, the pufferfish was accustomed to seeing aquarists standing in front of the tank window and being fed from that specific location. The quarantine tank was 800 gallons in volume and the pufferfish was the only fish in the tank.
After the quarantine period, the pufferfish went on display – in a 15,000-gallon tank with nearly 150 other fishes. For the first few days on exhibit the pufferfish thought a visitor walking up to the viewing window meant it was time to be fed. So, it would swim back and forth against the window expecting and begging for food. We knew that eventually it would get with the program and learn that food would be given from behind the scenes.
On the second day the pufferfish was on display, the hobbyist who donated the animal unexpectedly showed up right at opening time. I was happy to show the donor how well her fish was doing in our exhibit. The donor came up to the tank and put her hand on the window. The pufferfish, still accustomed to the quarantine tank feeding regimen, came straight to her hand and began swimming back and forth expecting to be fed. The donor however, thought differently – her fish recognized her! The donor began to cry and get emotional. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that her fish behaved the same way anytime anyone came up to the window.
The donor left feeling good that her fish remembered her and that it was healthy and in a good home. I left it at that.