Swimming with the Fishes

Swimming with the Fishes

Local volunteers clean tanks at National Aquarium.

In the shark and ray tank at the National Aquarium in Baltimore, volunteer diver Mark Mercer has to remember that the fish are not pets. Mercer, a Burke resident, was reminded of that once at feeding time "when the shark snuck around and got my glove stuck in his mouth," causing a scene that looked like an attack to onlookers.

"You’re feeding a wild animal," Mercer said.

Another member of the volunteers, Frances Windt, of the Hayfield area, had a similar incident with a territorial trigger fish that lunged for her, breaking her mask. "I got a black eye," Windt said.

Windt and Mercer are divers in the Sunday "A Team," that shows up at the aquarium in Baltimore every other Sunday to feed the fish, scrub the tanks and keep Maryland’s largest paid tourist attraction operating. Mercer originally volunteered to be an exhibit guide over six years ago and ended up in a wet suit, scrubbing algae off the sides and rock formation structures in the 1.3 million gallon dolphin tank.

"When it starts getting brown, we scrub that off," Mercer said.

Sunday’s A Team is made up of eight among the 600 volunteers that contribute approximately 85,000 volunteer hours per year in addition to the 100 paid personnel at the aquarium. While Mercer and Windt are from Northern Virginia, others hale from Baltimore, Upper Marlboro, and Glen Burnie, Md., and as far as Charles County, Va. According to staff member Keri O’Neil, the volunteers "are a crucial part of our work force."

On the morning of Sunday, Aug. 28, O’Neil briefed the volunteers on the status of the Atlantic Reef tank, which was on their agenda that day. Points of discussion included feeding the tarpon fish, the groupers eating habits and the status of three newborn stingray "pups,".

"All three of them have been eating well," O’Neil said.

Upon arrival, part of the team headed off to the dolphin tank while the others prepared food for the day. The menu included 20 pounds of shrimp, 18 pounds of smelt, 15 pounds of squid, half a pound of krill, a Tupperware of peas for the vegetarian fish, 10 clams and six mackerel.

One direction on the board involved a Zebra Shark named Zooey: "If she spits out the smelt, feed squid instead." Another special instruction was for "Calypso," the green sea turtle that eats 10 heads of lettuce a day.

Calypso was found in the north, suffering so badly from hypothermia that one flipper had to be amputated. "They had a public competition for naming the turtle," said Windt. Since then, Calypso has acquired celebrity status in the Atlantic Reef tank and the divers take turns feeding Calypso.

"He’s like a cat, he wants his back scratched," Windt said.

The dolphin show, a hit with the visitors, was canceled for the day because one of the dolphin’s recently gave birth, so the aquarium officials were toning down the activity in that room.

Team leader Jeff Lindemuth keeps in touch with the volunteer diving team members on a weekly basis through e-mail and assigns the tasks at hand each Sunday. Most of the divers are in the over-40 category, and look at their volunteer status as an opportunity to dive, help the facility and interact with the visitors. Windt, for example, started out as a special education teacher in Westmoreland County, Va. She likes interacting with the children, teaching them about the fish and even dressing up like a puffin on one occasion.

"This is the way school should be," she said.

Mercer works for Lockheed Martin and also is a volunteer firefighter.

Lindemuth likes interfacing with the public as well, and without lecturing the whole time about conservation and protecting the environment, he does stress that the ocean is a delicate ecosystem. For those interested, information is available at the aquarium about restoring wetlands on Poplar Island, volunteering to clean up wetlands at Fort McHenry, or helping out on an osprey banding trip on the Patuxent River.

"There’s a serious message behind the whole thing," Lindemuth said.

THE NATIONAL AQUARIUM in Baltimore traces its roots back to 1976 when the residents of Baltimore passed a bond referendum to fund the project. Groundbreaking for the facility took place on Pier 3 in the city’s Inner Harbor on Aug. 8, 1978. The aquarium was opened to the public on Aug. 8, 1981. The City of Baltimore funded most of the aquarium’s $21.3 million construction cost, and a majority of the $21.6 million annual operating costs are covered by admission fees and corporate memberships. An average of 1.7 million people visit the aquarium each year, and 70 percent of these visitors are from out of state.

The aquarium's various levels include: "Wings in the Water," consisting of stingrays and sharks and includes the Atlantic Coral Reef on the first level; "Maryland: Mountains to the Sea," on level 2; Surviving through Adaptations Gallery on level 3; North Atlantic to Pacific Gallery on level 3; the Amazon Rain Forest on level 4; and the Tropical Rain Forest on level 5. The newest exhibit, "Animal Planet Australia: Wild Extremes," is nearing completion and is slated to be open by the end of 2005. The exhibit will include a river gorge, a 35-foot waterfall with crocodiles, flying foxes, pig-nosed turtles, and blue-tongued skinks — all native to Australia.