Pick the Right Whale

Shortly after beginning my zoo career as children’s zoo attendant, my first paid position with a living institution, I found another opportunity that would allow me to serve again in a most subordinate capacity to almost everyone at the facility.  I had been advised to gain experience at as many facilities as possible.  So I took sabbatical leave to work with the dive team and marine bird and mammal husbandry personnel at the highly esteemed New England Aquarium. This was in an era when research and conservation departments were rare among even regional zoos and aquariums. The late John Prescott was the director when I arrived at the aquarium and he was responsible for building the world-class marine science research program from the ground up. He was an ardent supporter of whale conservation and rigorous marine animal research. Upon arriving at the New England Aquarium I learned that the top floor was designated entirely for research. I had no idea what the word research really meant, but it sounded very impressive, whatever it was.  It was not common for the husbandry staff to mingle with researchers. Colleagues are colleagues, but there seemed to be minimal interaction among staff in different departments. Today husbandry, health, and research departments collaborate more often than not at most institutions and interaction is common place. With that said the New England Aquarium was still way ahead of it’s time.

Eventually I asked what they were researching “upstairs” without trying to probe too much about a seemingly covert operation.  I was told they, the researchers, were working on tuna, bluefin tuna.  I have since become very familiar with pelagic tuna fisheries, but prior to working with the gallery aquarists and the aquarium’s dive team the only tuna I had encountered was in a can.

What I soon learned was that the New England Aquarium’s team of behavioral ichthyologists was conducting very basic behavioral studies on a small school of Atlantic bluefin tuna in a large recirculating seawater holding system.  I  even got a chance to go up to the research suite to have a look at them for myself. As fascinating as tuna are, particularly in regards to thermal biology and physiological ecology, and their migratory behavior, I  didn’t know enough to be impressed. The antics of  40 or so spheniscid penguins and smaller colony of crested penguins were much more interesting to me. It’s funny when you are young and don’t even know enough to be impressed.

I should take a moment to apologize to Dr. Les Kaufman, Chief Scientist and Head of the Edgerton Research Laboratory at the New England Aquarium. I was introduced to him, but at the time I didn’t know about his great contributions to marine fisheries science and fish husbandry. I certainly had not read any of his work. To me he was just one of the tuna guys upstairs. His team would go on to learn a great deal about these fish in terms of husbandry and health care. His team also contributed to our knowledge of the behavioral ecology of spawning-size giant bluefin and their distribution in pelagic waters of the Western Atlantic, among other things.  They would learn quite a bit about these commercially important fish.

The New England Aquarium is truly a world renowned research facility and exhibit. The facility was built in 1969 on Boston’s  waterfront, and is considered the first modern public aquarium by many in the industry. It has not only revolutionized the aquarium experience for patrons, but it has long been committed to research and possibly developed collaborative relationships with academia long before other public aquariums and zoos began to invest any time or much interest in conservation and science programs.

I’m sure the CITES rejection to ban the trade of tuna was most discouraging to staff at the New England Aquarium and for other marine biologists and aquarium personnel around the country who have worked hard to conserve these species and educate the public about the plight of tuna fisheries. With that said, the New England Aquarium remains a leader in it’s field. For example, the aquarium spearheads research programs for the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium. The North Atlantic right whale along with North Pacific right whale are two of the most endangered whale species in the world. In fact, the North Atlantic right whale is listed as critically endangered with only about 400 left in the wild.  The aerial surveys and catalog work along with efforts to mitigate threats to this species are the reasons that the aquarium’s cetacean project is the most comprehensive and longest-running North Atlantic right whale conservation and research program in the world.

I applaud the aquarium for all of these behind-the-scenes conservation efforts that may go unnoticed and unappreciated by patrons and even fellow zoo and aquarium personnel who are simply unaware of this great institution’s marine science programs.

As many of you known the Cambridge Seven Associates, Inc. designed the New England Aquarium, and later the Chattanooga aquarium in Tennessee (Tennessee Aquarium), which is the largest freshwater aquarium in the world. The also designed Baltimore’s National Aquarium which is considered to be one of the very best aquariums in the world.  The staff in Baltimore also collaborate with educational facilities and government agencies on conservation projects and they also operate a smaller facility by the same name, the National Aquarium which is located in Washington D.C.

Some of my colleagues currently working at public aquariums have embarked on an ambitious undertaking to bring a new world-class aquarium to Cleveland, OH.  Cleveland is a prominent town in the Aquarium industry.  Some of the very individuals and other former staff from the old Cleveland Aquarium were credited with developing Instant Ocean, the first synthetic salt formula designed for marine fish hobbyists and public aquaria. The original Cleveland Aquarium, a relatively small facility was torn down and many of the fish and marine mammals were moved to the local zoo where many are still alive to this day.  SeaWorld of Ohio which was located near Cleveland also supported an aquarium, but was eventually closed  down.

It would be nice if the economy recovers and Clevelanders can look forward to a brand new facility on the great lake they call Erie. For more information about the Cleveland Aquarium, Inc. visit their website or contact my colleagues Nick Zarlinga, or Dr. Chris Bonar. Their contact information should be available on the website.  -Dr. Jordan Schaul, Zoo  Keeper Emeritus

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