I recently spoke with Milena Acosta, the outreach supervisor for the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, California. She shared some of her thoughts about working with (and sometimes even sleeping next to) aquatic wildlife.
What makes the Aquarium of the Pacific stand out?
At the Aquarium of the Pacific, we believe the best way to educate our visitors about ocean conservation issues is to immerse them in fun. From sleepovers with the fishes and shadowing a marine biologist to an encounter with the world’s largest animal on our Blue Whale and Sea Life Cruise, there is no shortage of fun and interactive educational activities to create a sense of wonder, awareness, and stewardship. It’s a great place to feed your curiosity about the ocean and its inhabitants… and to touch some animals!
Beyond a visit here, what truly makes the nonprofit Aquarium of the Pacific unique is its vision of building relationships among people to help protect nature and its resources. We do this in a variety of ways. Our Aquarium is a community gathering place where diverse cultures and the arts are celebrated and a place where important environmental topics are explored by scientists, policy-makers, and stakeholders in the search for sustainable solutions. The Aquarium is also involved in numerous conservation efforts, including sustainable seafood, ocean literacy through the arts, and ocean use for planning to map out a healthier future for the urban waters off Southern California. If you are interested in the last topic, you can tune in live to our lecture on July 12 at 7 p.m. pacific time through our live streaming lecture series webpage.
What’s the most popular exhibit or animal?
Our June Keyes Penguin Habitat that opened this summer is very popular with guests. The habitat houses Magellanic penguins and includes a space you can crawl under that allows you to feel as if you are in the exhibit with the animals! Some of the penguins you will see in the exhibit were rescued in South America. Scientists believe that these penguins could not find food near their native habitat due to issues such as climate change and overfishing. Over 75 percent of all penguins are endangered or threatened. Through this exhibit, people can learn that choosing sustainable seafood, reducing carbon footprints and pollution, and supporting legislation that protects areas where these birds breed and forage are ways we can help penguins. Guests can also get to know our penguins before their visit by going to our website and watching them on our webcams. It’s fun to see them swimming, diving, vocalizing and feeding!
And what about you? Do you have a favorite animal?
Some of my favorite animals at the Aquarium are our sea otters. They are my favorite because they are energetic, curious, and fun to watch! Earlier this year an otter pup arrived at the Aquarium who was orphaned in the wild. Our staff worked around the clock for weeks to rehabilitate the malnourished pup. Thanks to their hard work, Betty the sea otter is healthier now and will be introduced in our Sea Otter Habitat once she grows even larger. It is success stories like this that make me appreciate and recognize that the Aquarium is an amazing facility that works hard to uphold its mission of stewardship and conservation.
Have the aquarium’s caretakers encountered any problems getting so many different creatures to coexist?
The Aquarium’s animal experts work carefully to choose the appropriate species to keep together in an exhibit. Special preparations must also be made prior to adding new animals into an exhibit. One example is with our new baby sea otter Betty. Before going on exhibit, she must first meet each individual otter on a one-on-one basis. Betty has been meeting some of the female otters first. The hope is that they can start building a relationship before she moves into her new permanent home. Even with preparations there can sometimes be an issue that may one day arise between animals that have gotten along fine. This was the case when our sawfish was bit by a shark several years ago, causing it to almost lose its saw. When we break our bones, we get a cast. There are no underwater casts when aquatic animals break something so our vet had to come up with a new solution, and he did. Thanks to the ingenuity and expertise of our veterinarian, our sawfish had an underwater “cast” and fully recovered. When you check out our sawfish in our Shark Lagoon exhibit, you would have never guessed this happened.
Your aquarium is featuring the new June Keyes Penguin Habitat. Was it difficult setting up a cold water habitat?
The Aquarium of the Pacific focuses on the temperate, warm, and cold waters of the Pacific Ocean in three galleries; Southern California and Baja, the Northern Pacific, and the Tropical Pacific. Within the Northern Pacific gallery, we house a variety of animals that require water temperatures that dip to the low 40s. The water in the new penguin habitat is kept at 60 degrees to accommodate the temperate waters these penguins are accustomed to in their native environments. When we think of penguins we often picture ice and snow. But some penguins, like our Magellanics, live along the coasts of South America, Africa, Australia, New Zealand, and the Galápagos off the coast of Ecuador.
I was looking at the shark encounter page and it said that guests who want to swim with the sharks must wear closed-toed shoes. Yikes! Has anybody ever been bitten? Is it dangerous putting civilians so close to these predators?
Our Animal Encounters are a fun and educational way to learn more about how we care for our animal collection. We run encounters with our seals and sea lions, sea otters, penguins, and sharks. All of our encounters require guests to wear closed-toed shoes because our guests get to enter behind-the-scenes areas during this program. One of the reasons this is a requirement is to actually help keep our animals healthy. In many of our behind-the-scenes areas you will see shallow mats with a cleaning solution for cleaning the bottom of your shoes. This helps prevent harmful substances from being tracked into exhibits. Guests participating in our shark Animal Encounter are invited into a shallow pool located in Shark Lagoon to interact with our “touchable” sharks. After this, they are able to enter the holding area adjacent to the main shark exhibit to encounter a large zebra shark.
One of the common misconceptions about sharks is that they are all “man-eaters.” There are over 400 species of shark, and only 10-12 of them can be considered potentially dangerous to people. We do not have any of those 10-12 species here, but even then humans pose a much greater threat to sharks. Over 100 million sharks are killed each year by people, whereas only about 5-15 people worldwide die of a shark attack. Here at the Aquarium, people change their minds about sharks everyday, once they have had that first-hand positive experience touching a shark or getting in the water with them. We try and educate the public about what they can do to help protect sharks, which play a vital role in maintaining a healthy balance in the ocean.
Your aquarium gives behind-the-scenes tours for guests. Most of our readers would love to know how you keep such a massive aquarium up and running. Could you tell us a bit about what people on the tour might see?
The Aquarium’s Behind-the-Scenes Tour gives guests the opportunity to dive deeper into the inner working of the Aquarium and experience what we call the “wet side.” Guests are toured past our Molina Animal Care Center, food preparation room, animal holding tanks, and dive locker. One of my favorite parts of the tour is the visit to the third floor of the Aquarium, which accesses the top side of our largest exhibit located in the Tropical Pacific Gallery. This exhibit contains 350,000 gallons of water and is home to hundreds of fish, sharks, turtles and sting rays! Behind-the-Scenes Tour guests are given a piece of seaweed to feed a small snack to the animals in the exhibit, which is the highlight of the tour!
I’ve never heard of an aquarium offering adult sleepovers. What do people seem to think about spending the night in the dark next to five-foot-long sharks? Do you think the relaxing sights helps people get a good night’s sleep?
Our adult guests really seem to enjoy this program and have a great time exploring the Aquarium after hours! During the sleepover they have the opportunity to tour the galleries with our education staff, feed animals, and have the choice between a flashlight tour or yoga session in the galleries. The night ends with having to choose whether to sleep in front of the Tropical Reef Habitat or sea otter exhibit . Having personally spent the night in front of both these exhibits, I can say that it makes for a very relaxing and peaceful start to a good night’s rest!
Is the Aquarium of the Pacific hosting any fun upcoming events?
The Aquarium hosts a variety of events each week. For bargain hunters, we have Discounted Late Nights every Sunday in the summer and other dates where you get in for just $14.95 from 5 p.m.-9 p.m. Whether it’s music and art, cultural festivals, viewing wildlife at sea, delving into environmental topics with experts and authors from around the nation, classes for kids, or even healthy active lifestyle programs like our 5K on July 22, there is something for everyone at the Aquarium of the Pacific.