Mysterieous Coral Killer Unmasked - Fresh Catch Friday

Friday, April 3, 2009

Unbeknownst to the hundreds of visitors, a mysterious killer lurked at Newquay Blue Reef Aquarium. Aquarists found evidence of violent attacks to the coral reef display, often entire pieces cut in half. Despite the two-week stake out of the exhibit, and multiple traps, the killer began claiming fish as victims. The Aquarium was forced to take the exhibit apart, rock by rock. Halfway through the exhibit they discovered:

CASE #608-2741

Name: Barry

Species: Sea Worm

Length: 4'0"

Last Seen: Newquay Blue Reef Aquarium

At the time of his capture, Barry was armed and dangerous. He is covered with thousands of stinging bristles, which are capable of inflicting permanent numbness. After biting through a 20 lb fishing line, the perpetrator was finally lured out with fish scraps. Currently, Barry is being held in solitary confinement in a tank, safely away from any potential victims.

A Day In The Life Of: A Jellyfish Keeper

Monday, March 23, 2009

I am so excited to bring you all the very first 'Day in the Life' post! I hope this can be a regular feature on my blog. Be sure to leave your comments and enjoy!

Name: Chad Widmer
Title: Senior Aquarist
Employer: Monterey Bay Aquarium

No, Chad doesn't chase after jellies with a net like Spongebob, but he does have a pretty awesome job. As a Senior Aquarist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, Chad is responsible for thousands of jellyfish including about 20 different species.

"I didn’t start out in life wanting to be a jellyfish aquarist, but I did know I wanted to be a marine biologist."
- Chad Widmer

However, marine biology doesn't just encompass mammals and fish. 95% of the world's animals are invertebrates, or animals without backbones. Widmer's penchant for invertebrates led him to a unique opening in the jellyfish gallery at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

At first, working with jellies wasn't a permanent career choice for him, but he soon "realized how much opportunity there was for new scientists." The past ten years have been full of opportunities for Widmer such as: publishing in scientific journals, appearing on 15 different television programs, discovering new jellyfish species, and even writing a book.

The aquarium's Drifters Gallery is the largest permanent collection of jellyfish species in the United States. The exhibit's 15 windows showcase jellies native to Monterey Bay, California. There's more than meets the eye to this exhibit. Behind the scenes are thousands of jellyfish. Widmer even grows his own jellies starting with laboratory cultures. Only the best looking groups of jellyfish go on display. "The ones you may see here today could be different than the ones you saw here last time, or the next time you visit," Widmer said.

A Typical Day:
  • First, Chad checks his email and voicemail, grabs some coffee and a canteen of water and heads to the Drifters Gallery.
  • Then, he evaluates the health of the animals and determines what maintenance is necessary. "It is my goal to provide a jellyfish exhibit with the best looking and healthiest display jellyfish in the entire world," Widmer said.

  • Next, Chad spends about two hours getting the exhibits ready for display. Typically, this involves wiping diatoms and gunk off the inside of the exhibit windows.
  • Sometimes he deep cleans the exhibit. This process involves:
    - Removing all of the animals and draining the sea water from the tank
    - Refilling it with fresh water and 2-3 gallons of bleach to disinfect it
    - Neutralizing the bleach, draining, rinsing, and refilling the tank with sea water
    - Rebalancing the currents, adding the animals, and checking on their health

  • During the day he also harvests live food for the exhibits and gallery. "Feeding them all and lots and lots of cultures is hard work!"

  • He's not always in the aquarium. Sometimes he goes boating to look for additional jellies or to collect wild plankton to feed the exhibit animals. Also, he collects kelp for the sea otters to play with.

Best Part of the Job:

For Chad, seeing the end results of all his hard work is the best part of the job. After growing a batch of jellyfish from scratch and putting them on exhibit, he enjoys watching people take pictures of them. Widmer estimates over 12 million people have seen his work in person, and countless others on television.

"I really like that, it's how you know you've done a good job - when people get out their cameras to forever remember your work in their family photo albums."
- Chad Widmer

Worst Part of the Job:

Perhaps the one downside to the job is getting stung "almost every day." Depending on what type of jellyfish, you might not feel it at all. A medium strength jellyfish sting feels like "a slow burn that grows steadily, accompanied by itching." Widmer compares it to "rubbing up against some fiberglass or stinging nettles." If you do get stung, he recommends vinegar and a topical antihistamine lotion like Benadryl. Otherwise, you'll feel a stinging sensation again if you shower or you may possibly wake up in the night from itchiness.

Most Unusual Part of the Job:

"Everything about working with jellyfish is unusual."
- Chad Widmer

For Widmer, the weirdest part of his experience was working with different television film crews. Out of the 15 programs, some of his favorites include Mythbusters and the BBC.

Somehow in between maintaining the exhibits, discovering new jellies, and appearing on tv shows Widmer found the time to write a book, How to Keep Jellyfish in Aquariums: An Introductory Guide for Maintaining Healthy Jellies. The book aims to answer the questions that he frequently receives from professional aquarists, entrepreneurs, and people who want jellyfish as pets.

Wonder what Chad's favorite jellyfish is?

Although he says he likes them all, he chose the Crystal jellyfish, or Aequorea victoria, for a tattoo. "It's just good looking," said Widmer. He also is fond of the new to science discoveries he made such as Amphinema rollinsi, named after Henry Rollins. Soon he will name a recent discovery after his nieces.

People Would Be Surprised
To Know That:

"Jellyfish exhibit an entire range of behaviors based on what their environment is like at the time...They aren't just passively drifting through the water column as has been reported."
- Chad Widmer

Food, light, darkness, and other stimuli impact their behavior. Widmer is developing a protocol to test the idea that jellyfish can be trained to do something.

Another current project of Widmer's is looking for new deep sea jellies and methodical describing them and their life cycles for scientific journals. One day he hopes to become a professor of marine biology at a junior college.

Definitely check out Chad's website for jellyfish pictures, blog posts, and how you can start your own jellyfish aquarium. You can also follow his updates on twitter @jellykeeping101.

All pictures courtesy of Chad Widmer