Creatures Featured Pt. 2
Sharks to Rays: Exploring the depths of Monterey Bay Aquarium’s story with the help of 25 charismatic residents.
Thursday, October 8, 2009
6 White shark: Carcharodon carcharias
There was yelling. Clapping. Screaming. Some had to sit down to breathe. “Absolutely phenomenal,” says Director of Husbandry Jon Hoech. “The highlight of my career.” Sept. 14, 2004 was history with teeth, the first time a white shark had ever been successfully fed in an aquarium setting, ending a half-century of failed attempts. The new resident moved the masses – luring almost a million visitors in just 198 days – and tapped an unprecedented saltwater revenue stream. When the star shark started chasing hammerhead and Galapagos sharks around, though, any thought of keeping her was drowned. “When it needed to be released for its well-being,” says MBA Veterinarian Dr. Mike Murray, “[Aquarium staff] didn’t blink, even though there were lines going around the building.” The conservation-mission-driven decision speaks to the White Shark Project’s real goal: understanding. The invaluable experience of successfully keeping a growing white, plus tracing the tracking beacon it wore on its way out – along with those worn by the three exhibited white shark since (the fourth juvenile is well into month two) – will go a long way towards that.
7 Killdeer: Charadrius vociferus
This little shorebird has a trick: When a predator comes too close to her chicks, the mother drags herself along the ground as if she’s injured. The hungry beast follows her away from the nest, thinking her easy pickins, and just when it’s ready to bounce, woosh! She flies away. But the killdeer in the Aquarium’s open-air aviary really does have a hurt wing, Aviculturist Donielle York explains. In fact, most of the 32 birds in the Sandy Shores exhibit have been hurt in the wild. When adult Western snowy plovers don’t return to their nests, Aquarium staff incubate, rear and fledge their babies, then return the threatened birds to the wild. “We absolutely release any animal that can survive on its own,” York says. Other birds, however, have remained at the Aquarium for close to 20 years – like a mating pair of old black-necked stilts that spend all their time together in the plush aviary. That’s a smart retirement plan.
8 California sheephead: Semicossyphus pulcher
All of these pretty wrasse are born female, but the school is dominated by one lucky male. When he dies, one of the biggest and oldest girls changes colors – from rosy to dark with a wide crimson belt – and becomes a male. The Aquarium, like the wrasse, is hard-wired to adjust. It opened with a mission “to inspire” ocean awareness and conservation, but it’s now more keyed toward advocating change. “It’s always been David Packard’s vision to not sit on your haunches and pat yourself on the back, but move forward,” spokeswoman Angela Hains says. Another adaptation: Aquarium staff used to raise stranded sea otter pups by hand, but soon realized they were leaving too much of a human imprint. (The otters were jumping on kayaks and cozying up to people once they were released.) In order to keep otters wild in rehab, the staffers donned otter-like costumes and tapped the gentle female otter Toola – and later others – to act as a surrogate mother, teaching the pups the skills they’ll need to survive in the cold California sea.
9 Tube anemone: Pachycerianthus fimbriatus
The half-dome rises from the Aquarium floor like an alien mushroom, encasing shafts of pink-tentacled anemone and feathery orange sea pens. Next to it, an interactive console displays a tube anemone made of resin, with a fake barber slug crawling up its side. With the spin of a wheel, visitors can slide the anemone into its sheath in order to protect it from the slug. It’s part of the Ocean’s Edge exhibit, the result of a 2004 renovation that appeals to a diversity of learning styles, senior exhibit developer Jaci Tomulonis explains. More interactive and contemplative exhibitry is based both on the visionary leadership of the Aquarium’s first husbandry director, Dave Powell – bubble windows and wave-crashing tidepools reflect his aversion to static rectangle tanks – and decades of visitor research revealing that people learn in different ways: by learning, looking, reading, doing, hearing and tasting. Interactive physical spaces help foster a connection to otherwise hard-to-access ocean habitats. “Our charge always has been balancing mission, message and visitors,” Tomulonis says. “If we have a mantra, it’s that our exhibits inspire, we engage, and we empower.”
10 Bat ray: Myliobatis californica
The Aquarium’s tanks feature shapes and angles that bring visitors eye-to-eye with underwater oddities, but the touch pools remove the barriers entirely. Hands little and big are encouraged to reach out and stroke the slimy wings of ghostly gliding bat rays, sea cucumbers and chitons under the mindful watch of volunteers. “The more engaged we can get visitors, the more they care about these animals,” Hains says. “If they can touch a bat ray, and feel the little tentacles on the bottom of the sea stars, they just fall in love with the habitat.” The “oh my” moment in canoodling a gumboot chiton at age 4 was powerful enough to propel one Aquarium kid toward a Ph.D. program in marine biology, and a recent expedition to the Pacific Garbage Patch. Another grew up to become George W. Bush’s ocean policy advisor. “I get goosebumps when I hear these stories,” Ken Peterson says.