I work with a team of marine biologists to take care of all of the fish and invert habitats, all of the galleries—cold water, freshwater, sharks, corals, a snail, a plant. We arrive around 6:30 in the morning. After we have a meeting, we do quick rounds and system checks on everything, make sure the animals are doing well: Are they doing normal early-morning behaviors? Just like any other animal that anybody may have in their home, they can’t verbally tell us there’s something bothering them, so we have to know and understand the behavior to pick up on those cues. Then, we get into feeding and diving and prepping the systems for the guests to come see. We work with the animals, but our backgrounds also include plumbing, electrical, chemistry, water quality. You get to tinker a lot—we can fix anything with duct tape and a zip tie.
I was born [in Key West] and lived next to the ocean my entire life. The summer I moved here, in 2004, it dawned on me that I could not get to the ocean within, like, 10 minutes. I felt like I was gonna have a panic attack. The next weekend, I drove five hours to Savannah. The ocean is my calm place; I feel like saltwater runs through my veins. I’ve been working in public aquariums for almost 30 years. I started part-time when I was in high school: I worked in the front of the house, kids’ birthday parties. I worked the touch tank, gave talks. When I started college, science wasn’t the easiest subject for me when it came to academics, reading a book in a classroom setting. I was a computer engineering major because my father was a computer engineer for the navy. Growing up, my dad was not around all the time; he was out to sea. When he was home, I wanted to have that connection to him, to understand what he was doing when he was away. I liked it, but I realized I have to do what I love. No matter how hard it was through school, through college, I had to try and persevere to get to where I knew I wanted to be, which is here. I graduated from Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia, [with] a degree in biology and a minor in oceanography. I couldn’t imagine doing anything else.
I was able to start a year and a half before the aquarium opened. They hired me to build the [Indo-Pacific Barrier Reef habitat] in the Tropical Diver gallery. I had the opportunity to work in the field [prior to opening] with the collection for Ocean Voyager. Being in this field and knowing what Georgia Aquarium was about to bring to the city of Atlanta, it was jaw-dropping. Everybody wanted to be a part of it. Seeing the whale sharks come into [the habitat] and swim over me as a diver in Ocean Voyager for the first time—I pretty much cried underwater.
In 2008, I started work with the Coral Restoration Foundation in Key Largo to help with two critically endangered species of corals in the Caribbean. We help grow in an [offshore] nursery these two species, and when they’re a mature size, we transfer them [to various reefs within] the marine sanctuary in the Keys. We’ve been able to plant thousands of corals back onto the reef.
A new disease has hit the Keys that has been working its way through the Caribbean, so the aquarium has partnered with organizations and aquariums across the country to secure and hold some of the species ahead of that line of disease [like a coral bank]. Once that disease has run its course, or we have been able to find a way to rectify that in the wild, then those animals can be transplanted back into the ocean—when the coast is clear, so to speak. Bringing the animals into our aquarium, it’s protecting them from the wild, which is an interesting and scary state to be in.
When you look at documentation of reefs 30 or 40 years ago and you look at them now, it’s devastating. It’s catastrophic. The amount of energy that we’re putting into [changing] it, the calories that we’re putting into it—the ultimate question is, Is it helping? Only time will tell. But this has been my work and my passion my entire life, caring for animals. I want to know that I tried something in my lifetime to help—and [I want to] show my daughter the importance of trying. It’s okay to fail. You can’t give up. I [can] go out and do dives and transplant one coral at a time. That’s all you got to do: Just try.
This article appears in our June 2022 issue.