Co-op Spotlight: New England Aquarium

By Matt Tyler, Marine Biology and Environmental Science, 2017

One of Northeastern’s most lauded “draws” for prospective students is our co-op program. Apparently the idea of getting paid for a full-time job, at least for a while, padding one’s resume with real world experience, and building a professional network is appealing to forward-thinking teenagers. While as a junior, I’m starting a bit later than most Northeastern students, I am on my first co-op at the New England Aquarium here in Boston. The aquarium actually offers three co-ops per semester: two in penguin husbandry, and mine, the Giant Ocean Tank aquarist position.

The job is demanding yet very rewarding on both physical and mental levels. One of the biggest and most visible aspects of the position is SCUBA diving: the GOT/Dive department has at least five dives daily in the 200,000 gallon, 23-foot deep centerpiece of the aquarium, and the co-op will usually be on at least three of them. Many days, I’ve found myself doing all five dives. It’s often tiring, but always worth it, whether I’m feeding our two loggerhead sea turtles their breakfast at the bottom of the tank, or cleaning the windows and posing for a dozen selfies. Trying to find ourselves in Instagram posts is a common pastime during lunch!

There are 130 or so species of fish in the tank, and 1,600 individuals. I was fortunate enough to pick up a lot of fish identification experience while in Panama on the Three Seas Program, but we keep flashcards and quizlet quizzes aplenty. Some of our more devoted volunteers spend parts of their lunch hours walking up and down the spiral outside of the tank, trying to identify as many fish as they can. It’s important to know who is who and what is what in there, because a lot of feedings are tailored to specific fishes, and if a fish is sick or injured, it’s important for the aquarists and the medical staff to know which kind. There’s also plenty of interaction with the public: when I’m not diving, I’m often on one of our surface platforms doing a targeted feeding, and many inquisitive guests like to know what they’re looking at too.

There is a ton that goes on outside of the tank to keep things running smoothly on a day-to-day and long-term basis. I’m the intermediary between our many volunteers and our permanent aquarists, and I’m also the only aquarist who works through the whole weekend (yes, I work Saturdays and Sundays, and get Wednesdays and Thursdays off), which means I am a major force in making sure everyone is up to date on everything. And there is a lot to keep people updated on: we are constantly tweaking our fishes’ diets, training them to go to certain targets for feeding, keeping an eye on sick or injured looking fish, coordinating with the aquarium’s medical center (conveniently right down the hall from us) for checkups, and adding, acclimating, and releasing new fish.

When it comes to our volunteers, I am not just an intermediary. I am the person directly in charge in most cases. We have 1,600 fish and three sea turtles, so we prepare almost 40 pounds of food every morning, split into many different containers to accommodate their varied diets. While many are fed by the divers, some get fed off of specific platforms using special targets at specific times, and I need to make sure that someone is there at the right time. We also clean our large food prep room from ceiling to floor daily, and have whole additional checklists of cleaning we need to do on weekly and monthly bases.

I was not the best in terms of leadership skills at the beginning of my co-op, but three months in, I can definitely say I’ve gotten much better at making sure I’m being understood loud and clear. Fortunately, our volunteers don’t make it hard for me. Everyone who comes in — be they students, retirees, or people with full-time jobs — spends a full day here every week because they want to be here. They say, “if you do what you love, you’ll never work a day in your life.” While I’m definitely aware of how hard I work, my co-op at the New England Aquarium is a job I enjoy doing and one I’ll be missing once January rolls around.