Inside Sydney’s Aquarium

Penguin by Fotolia/Dmitrimaruta

It’s shortly after nine on a weekday morning, and the seals are demanding to be fed. Each of them swims to their place by the side of the seal enclosure and looks expectantly at the people hauling silver buckets full of fish. As the fish start to fly, the seals catch them deftly in their mouths.

But not everybody is eating. One seal has been enticed out of the pool into an enclosure, where Paula Lash is using hand signals to get the seal to sit, roll over and lie down before it gets its fish. Lash, dressed in blue shorts and a t-shirt, is an aquarist. The seal obeys her every command, as though it’s a dog being trained.

The importance of training

“This is Nino,” says Lash, pointing to the seal. “He’s very food motivated. I enjoy working with him the most – he has a lovely personality.”

Lash, who has a degree in marine biology, isn’t teaching the seal tricks. By training him to move on command, she’s ensuring that when Nino needs medical treatment, he will open his mouth, or reveal his underside without fuss.

Nino is one of the inhabitants of the SEA LIFE Sydney Aquarium at Darling Harbour, one of Australia’s most popular attractions. He lives in the Seal Sanctuary, where up to 1,000 visitors an hour admire him. The Seal Sanctuary is home to a number of species, including the Australian fur seal, the Subantarctic fur seal, the Australian sea lion, and the New Zealand fur seal. The seals have mostly ended up here after an accident or injury and they can’t be returned to the wild. So here they are, playing in filtered sea water and natural sun light.

The Aquarium is home to 12,000 animals from 650 species, which are drawn from the major oceans and rivers of Australia, from Sydney Harbour to the Great Barrier Reef to the vast Murray Darling river system.

The animals come to the Aquarium for a variety of reasons. Some are animals that are injured or lost who are brought in for care. Others are collected from rivers or streams, or come from other zoos and aquariums. Penguins, sharks, seahorses and other animals are bred at the Aquarium, with the offspring sometimes returned to the wild. In the past year, there’s been a program to release penguins, and the animals are now being monitored to see how well they do back in the natural environment.

But regardless of where the animals come from or where they’re going, caring for them is hard work and the Aquarium employs a team of expert vets, biologists and keepers whose job it is to keep these animals fit, healthy and happy.

Hard work

“Today’s a typical day,” says Lash. “We start at 7.30am and finish at 4.00pm. I started by cleaning the tanks and feeding the fish.”

Cleaning the tanks is no joke, as it involves diving into them three or four times a week. “You spend two hours underwater,” she explains. “It’s very physical. We vacuum and clean the seal tanks and then dive into the shark tanks to feed and clean them.”

The sharks, despite their fearsome reputation, seem a slothful lot, happy to rest on top of the glass observation tunnel that runs through the shark tank. Looking up at a row of shark faces squished on the glass is a very odd sight.

Not that Lash has much time to contemplate the flattened snouts and rows of teeth, because she’s too busy feeding seals, penguins and then the seals again. Feeding the seals can take a long time, as each animal eats up to 7.5 kilograms of food. But caring for the animals means more than supplying them with food – it’s also the job of the keepers to amuse the animals.

“The biggest thing is the enrichment we do, to charge up their day,” says Lash. In the wild, animals have to cope with both catching food and avoiding predators, which keeps them occupied. The danger is that captivity is boring and demoralising. “We try and stimulate them with different feeding devices.” Lash points to a ball bobbing in the water. “We can shove fish inside that so they have to figure out how to get it out. Sea lions are very good at figuring out puzzles.”

Another tactic is to get a rock touched by another animal and throw it into the water, so they become intrigued by the foreign scent. “We need to get them as excited about everyday life as we can.”

Despite the hard labour involved, Lash will tell you how much she loves her work. As do the other keepers and aquarists who work around the Aquarium. But not all people love all animals equally.

“Seals,” snorts one staff member, who is a self-declared fish man. “They’re just dumb Labradors. The dogs of the sea. And they’ve got bad breath.”

Another staff member reckons the fish guys are all a bit mad. Then again, he also thinks that snakes have got interesting personalities. Every animal seems to have enchanted someone – except the great saltwater crocodile that spends its day lazing on a rock. “You don’t make friends with a crocodile,” as the fish man says.

Penguin training

Some of the most popular animals are the penguins, and it’s Benjamin Curry’s job to keep them fed. He sidles onto the sand bar behind the penguin exhibit and starts handing out fish. Soon, there are penguins waddling up out of the water, taking fish from him, while another aquarist kneels next to them and records which birds each which fish.

“Some birds will eat like pigs,” explains Curry. “It’s pretty good in there, with a constant supply of food and no predators, so we restrict them to around six fish per feed.”

But despite being well fed, the penguins still try and bite Curry’s feet when he cleans their tanks. Keeping them occupied keeps Curry occupied; the sum of all his biology training is keeping the penguins entertained with his key ring. The penguins love chasing his keys up and down the beach, so he spends time every day dangling his keys in front of them.

In other words, they’ve got him trained to do exactly what they want.

This article first appeared in Where magazine.