Thursday, July 30, 2015

365 True Things: 123/Aquarium

Our first visit to the world-famous Monterey Bay Aquarium was in 1985 when, as a surprise for David's birthday, I booked a room at a b&b in Santa Cruz and we came down for the day to tour the then one-year-old facility. We were awestruck.

When, five years later, a miracle happened and David was offered a teaching position in Monterey, I knew that one of the first things I'd do would be to visit the aquarium again—and this time, find out how to become a volunteer guide. It certainly helped that the house we rented our first year was about four blocks away. If nothing else, I'd be able to get to work easily enough.

That fall, I started taking the one-night-a-week semester-length crash course in marine biology and local history that, come January, saw me graduating into my "trusty rusty"—the burnt-orange jacket that all us guides wore—with the accompanying official name badge ☞ . (Current badges feature only a first name. I guess that's friendlier.)

While learning the ropes with my mentor Lowell Battcher, at one point he asked me which shift I was thinking of. I said, oh, maybe a midweek morning. He asked me how I liked children—because morning was when school groups came. He then suggested Wednesday third shift: nice and quiet; you can really talk to people on Wednesday third. That was some of the best advice I've ever gotten.

So for fifteen years, most every Wednesday I found myself in the briefing room at 2:30, then out on the floor at 3:30, until 6. We always got assigned stations, though in my early years they tended to be loose: lots of "roves." I especially liked hanging around the Kelp Forest and Deep Reef exhibits, which were large, with big windows. I'd eavesdrop, and when someone would say, "I wonder why . . . ," I'd be right there with an answer—and a friendly, informative chat would ensue. It was nice.

I also started doing the Kelp Forest narration—standing in front of the exhibit with a microphone and having a conversation with a diver in the tank who was feeding the fish, then taking questions from the audience; and the Otter narration—which, otters! Being fed and performing cute otter antics! What could be better?

As time went on, more "carts" were installed: specialized stations for showing visitors marine mammal artifacts (otter fur and skulls, baleen, orca teeth) or for talking about the aquarium's Seafood Watch program. Our tasks, including the narrations, became more scripted. There was less ability to mingle.

Finally, after fifteen years (I still have my 15-year sea star pin, somewhere), it was time to move on. I missed the freedom of the early years. But I did enjoy that decade and a half. I learned so much, and I made a few good friends on my W3 shift.

A fresh Velella velella
I thought of this today when, walking on a beach at Asilomar, I saw hundreds of dried-out by-the-wind sailors (Velella velella), a sort of jellyfish. If I hadn't been an aquarium guide, I might not even have noticed these creatures, and I certainly wouldn't have known what they were. I really did learn so much over those fifteen years. I am grateful for that.

It also reminded me that I haven't been to the aquarium in eons! It's time to pay another visit. Though I think I'll wait until the summer crowds have eased. Maybe another surprise trip for David's birthday. He will be surprised, but it won't be as elaborate of a trip.

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