One of my favorite things to do in the summer is to take a family trip to the beach. I love the ocean! And I love to visit the aquarium and learn about all the amazing animals that live in the ocean. This month, I talked to Mike Daniel, an aquarist with the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta. Originally from a small town in Northwest Georgia, with no ocean nearby, Daniel still found an early love for the ocean and the creatures in it. His mother was a science teacher, so she always encouraged him to pursue science avenues. Now he gets to spend his days taking care of tens of thousands of fish and animals in the Ocean Voyager exhibit at the world’s largest aquarium! He’s been with the Georgia Aquarium for more than seven years and really loves his job.
Truman: What is an aquarist?
Daniel: In some ways, you can use the two terms aquarist and marine biologist interchangeably. An aquarist is a more specialized version of a marine biologist. You would only find that title in an aquarium. I’m a caregiver of the animals at the aquarium and part of our husbandry staff.
Truman: What does it take to become a marine biologist?
Daniel: To become a marine biologist, you need to have an adventuresome spirit — the desire to discover and learn about things that live in a world that is totally different from the one that you see every day on land. I have a degree from the University of Georgia in biology with an emphasis in marine biology. I also became a scuba diver when I was in high school so that I could begin to visit and explore the waters. Being comfortable on a boat is also very important. One week I might be in Atlanta, and the next I might find myself free diving for jellyfish off of a boat in Oregon!
Truman: When, and why, did you first become interested in this profession?
Daniel: My dad first introduced me to the ocean when I was 8- or 9-years-old. It was love at first sight. We would spend hours fishing and snorkeling — I guess you could say I was “ hooked.” As a family, we would also spend our weekends on the Tennessee River fishing, swimming and skiing. My family loved the water, and I always did, too. All of those days above and below the water as a kid spilled over into college. I decided to take as many marine biology-related classes as I could when I was at UGA, even though they did not have a marine-biology undergraduate degree, and that in turn took me to the Georgia Aquarium’s doorsteps.
Truman: What do you do every day? Describe a typical day on the job.
Daniel: I work in our quarantine and acquisitions department. This means that every time the aquarium brings a new fish, snake or turtle into the aquarium it becomes my job to work with our veterinarians to make sure these animals do not have any diseases or parasites that could harm other animals. We examine the animals and use a variety of medications to treat whatever is found. After 45 days or more, we re-examine the animals, and if we don’t find any parasites or indications of disease, the animal is termed “clean” and will go to exhibit where our guest will be able to observe and learn about them. Other parts of my job include animal observations, preparing the food and feeding it out to individual animals and cleaning up after the animals (lots of fish means lots of poop!).
Truman: What’s the hardest part of your job?
Daniel: One of the hardest parts of working with animals is that they do not keep to a 9 to 5 workday. Sometimes I have to work really early in the morning, coming into the aquarium to participate in physical exams on whale sharks (the largest fish in the world!) at 5 a.m. It gets tough at times, but it is worth it!
Truman: What’s the best part of your job?
Daniel: Getting the chance to work with so many amazing animals in some really cool places. One of the highlights for me has been going to Taiwan to help bring two of the whale sharks back to Georgia. I spent a couple of weeks getting to see the animals in the wild and working with the Taiwanese fishermen who lived there. They were great people and had great food!
Truman: What was your favorite subject in school when you were a kid?
Daniel: Science was my favorite subject. My mom is a middle-school science teacher and was a big inspiration to me.
Truman: What’s your favorite animal?
Daniel: My favorite animal is the hammerhead shark. I have been lucky enough to work with several of them, and they constantly amaze me. They are huge animals that are very curious about things but have never been threatening to me before.
Truman: What advice would you give to kids who are interested in this profession?
Daniel: The best advice I can give is to chase your dreams. If you have a passion for the oceans and rivers, go out and play in them, and when it comes to school, you have to put in the effort and study hard. I know a lot of times when I was younger, I would think that I would never use the things that I was studying. I remember thinking, When will I ever need to know how to calculate the volume of a cube? Well, now I have to do it almost every day to fi gure out volumes for systems and calculate how much medication that a tank full of animals will require!
Truman: That does sound important! It sounds like you have a wonderful job. Thanks for telling me all about it!
Learn more about the Georgia Aquarium, the world’s largest aquarium, at www.georgiaaquarium.org.