Seattle Aquarium youth volunteer essay: “I am an entirely changed person”

We asked one of our recently graduated youth volunteers, Molly Kamicar, to write about her experience in the Seattle Aquarium’s Youth Ocean Advocate program. In just over a year, Molly gave over 500 hours of outstanding service to our mission, Inspiring Conservation of Our Marine Environment. Her thoughts are below.

My earliest memory of the Seattle Aquarium is from when I was second grade. I remember watching, wide-eyed, a tiny blue fish as it darted through the water, and suddenly, before I could call out, into the mouth of one of its significantly more menacing brethren. I had been certain my little fish was gone forever. To my great surprise, however, it glided nonchalantly back out of its captor’s gills a few seconds later. Both fish swam away and I stood there, wearing polka dot rain boots on my feet and a sense of wonder across my face.

I remember nothing else from that visit, but the Swallowed-Fish Incident has somehow stuck with me through all these years. The difference now is that I can tell you that that little fish was a cleaner wrasse, the larger a Napoleon, and the miracle I was sure I had been sole witness to was something called a symbiotic relationship. Nine years later, I know the science behind those childhood mysteries, but that sense of excitement I struggled to contain is something I’ve carried within me to this day. I’m still the same little girl who ran home and watched Finding Nemo five, maybe six (maybe seven, sorry mom), times, but that passion has grown tenfold as my curiosity and knowledge have expanded at a similar scale. I cannot begin to express my gratitude to the Seattle Aquarium for all it has done for me. Or, perhaps, for all it has allowed me to do for myself.

I never joined the Youth Interpreter program with any interest in marine biology. I was actually more interested in education, in the opportunity to work with kids, and in that ridiculously comfortable blue Aquarium fleece I had learned I could only attain through the volunteer program. I’d always been vaguely interested in science, but had come to believe that I could never excel, never be passionate enough, about anything outside the realm of the humanities. As I head off to college with an intended major in creative writing, it seems that not much has changed since a little over a year ago, when I first slid into that infamous Blue Fleece and stumbled awkwardly into my first, petrifying, 9:30am shift. I can safely say now, however, that as I leave the floor for the last time at 5:30 this evening, I am emerging as an entirely changed person, somehow both strikingly similar and unimaginably different from that girl who stood in the very same spot and asked the questions I now know the answers to by heart. I haven’t simply learned the difference between a squid and an octopus here, or why sharks can’t swim backwards, or how heavy a salmon gets or why a wolf eel is a type of fish or why no, sir, don’t worry, that rockfish is certainly, definitely, truthfully Not Dead.

The basis of factual knowledge I’ve gained here is a major benefit, but working with the fantastic group of people in the youth programs and in the Aquarium as a whole has taught me more than simply all that science I’ve come to love. I’ve learned how to approach people, how to hold a more engaging conversation, how to place real value into the things that I say. I’ve gained confidence, passion, and the initiative to improve myself further in every way I’m able, not only for myself and for others but also as a means to make even the slightest difference in the world.

Through the Youth Interpreter program I’ve had the opportunity to work with a unique and diverse group of both teens and adults, some of whom I can’t fathom ever having not been a part of my life, and all of whom have taught me more than I could have ever asked them for. I’ve developed my dedication and my endurance (the memory of having worked eight straight days of a special event dedicated exclusively to octopuses comes to mind), I’ve stretched my creativity and nearly mastered my improvisation, I’ve shared information and conservation messages with visitors of all ages and through education, inspiration, conservation and communication I’ve discovered where my greatest passions lie. Finally, despite all this but perhaps most importantly of all, I’ve finally learned to truly embrace, rather than fear, that simple, beautiful, liberating concept of “I don’t know.”

There are some experiences I’ve had here that I’ll cherish, others that I’ll quite honestly laugh at for years to come, but if I’m certain about anything I’m certain that even if I do forget how to differentiate between species of rockfish, why halibut swim sideways, that it’s thanks primarily to the siphonozooid polyps that a sea pen can deflate itself into a little orange lump, I will never forget the collective drive, passion and limitless devotion to that eternal mission (say it with me), Inspiring Conservation of Our Marine Environment, that has made my experience here so great.

Few things are as gratifying as when a visitor’s face, young or old, lights up with that unrestrained curiosity and hunger to learn more, to explore, to extract the inspiration that any animal or any exhibit truly has to offer. As I, one year older, mark “marine biology” as an interest for the first time on applications, I am again that little girl, standing tip-toed against a glass tank, impassioned by all the things there are to learn in the world. And I am also that cleaner wrasse, dashing headfirst into the darkness, fully confident in the day I will remerge and be undoubtedly better for it. I can’t offer anything but my gratitude (and some bad metaphors) to the unparalleled mentors, biologists, administration, and volunteers I’ve had the privilege to work with for some of the most valued 509 hours of my life. I’d like to give the Seattle Aquarium and everyone in it the most sincere, empathetic, and vaguely saltwater-scented thank you: for teaching me, for inspiring me, and for providing me with the tools to do the same for others. I have never had an experience so rewarding as all the time I have spent here.

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Almost fledging time for our tufted puffin chicks!

This past July, we were delighted to welcome two tufted puffin chicks to the Seattle Aquarium. Since then, they’ve been well cared for by their parents, and Aquarium staff have monitored their progress closely. Now the chicks are very close to leaving the nest and experiencing the exhibit on their own.

Tufted puffins are the largest members of the puffin species. They’re known for their broad orange bills, dark stocky bodies, orange legs and feet and—during breeding season—their white face “masks” and golden feather tufts alongside their heads. They reach sexual maturity between 3 and 5 years of age and usually mate for life. Shortly after the male and female pair up, they work together to dig a burrow and build a nest for their offspring.

It takes about 45 days for a tufted puffin egg to hatch. Chicks are covered with soft, downy fluff and cared for by both parents. As the weeks go by, the fluff is replaced with new feathers and the chicks grow much larger in size as they get closer and closer to being able to leave the nest.

Come look for our tufted puffin chicks during your next visit to the Seattle Aquarium—and check out our fact sheet to learn more about these amazing, charismatic birds!

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Seattle Aquarium's Marshawn Pinch scuttles off into the sunset

Marshawn Pinch, 12th crustacean at the Seattle Aquarium

The Seattle Aquarium’s 12th crustacean, Marshawn Pinch, has retired—he hopped a riptide and headed for the unexplored waters of Earth’s one big ocean. But before he hung up his shelmet for good, he came out of his shell one last time to encourage all his sea fans to rally around the Seahawks on dry land this season. Thanks for supporting Marshawn Pinch, and GO HAWKS!

Posted in Marine Animals, Seattle Aquarium | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

Aquarium intern assists in rehabilitation of stranded false killer whale calf

Sarah WahlstromSeattle Aquarium summer veterinary intern Sarah Wahlstrom, who is about to enter her second year of veterinary school at Ohio State University, recently had the experience of a lifetime when she assisted with the rehabilitation of a stranded false killer whale calf at the Vancouver Aquarium’s marine mammal rescue center. Below, she shares her thoughts about her passion for marine life, her work at the Aquarium, and what it was like to help that stranded calf.




Q:  How long have you been fascinated by marine animals?

A: I’ve been interested in all the creatures who inhabit our oceans since I can remember. I’m especially drawn to them since we know so little about the oceans in general. My parents obliged me by taking me whale watching, to every aquarium in our family travels and gave me my own tropical freshwater fish tank when I was 7 years old. They were very supportive and at one time I had five aquariums set up in the house, ranging from five to 55 gallons, filled with fresh water, brackish water and saltwater. I really feel passionate about animals who aren’t as charismatic and loved by the general populace—like invertebrates and elasmobranchs, commonly referred to as sharks and rays.

Q: What’s your Aquarium internship experience been like?

A: It’s been amazing! I must say I’m probably the luckiest vet student intern! The best thing about the Seattle Aquarium has been the people. I’ve been so impressed with how the staff work together as a team and how welcoming they have been to me. Everyone has been so gracious in answering my many questions, especially the Aquarium’s staff veterinarian, and my supervisor, Dr. Lahner. I have learned so much about aquarium husbandry and medicine; in vet school we only learn about domestic species in our core courses so you really have to find a way to learn outside of school. My most memorable moments have been sea otter procedures, attending the Sea Star Wasting Disease Symposium in Newport, OR, and of course spending some time with a false killer whale calf!

Q: What is a “false killer whale” and how did the calf come to be at the Vancouver Aquarium’s marine mammal rescue center?

A: False killer whales are actually not whales like their name suggests; they’re the third-largest species of dolphin behind orcas and pilot whales. This calf stranded on Vancouver Island. No one knows why or how he was separated from his mother or even why a species that is usually seen in much warmer water was this far north. The Vancouver Aquarium runs the marine mammal rescue center off-site and this lucky calf stranded near the only facility in Canada that could rehabilitate him.

Q: How did it happen that you went to Vancouver to help?

A: Since the field of aquarium medicine is so small, the vets are always in contact. When Dr. Lahner learned about the calf, she knew it would be a great learning opportunity for me and sent some emails to see if I could be of any help. I definitely didn’t expect that I would be in the water with the calf—it was an honor just to go support that team!

Q: What was the experience like and what did you learn from it?

A: It was unbelievable, definitely something that I will remember and cherish for life. It’s hard to describe how amazing spending time that close to an intelligent and rare animal is. Being from western New York State and now living in central Ohio, I don’t have any experience with cetaceans—commonly referred to as whales and dolphins. It was great to learn from an experienced team who does hundreds of rescues of marine mammals every year. They were patient in explaining the basics to me on how to hold him, what to look for, and how to help them when they needed to feed him. At the time he was unable to hold himself up and needed someone to support him 24/7. I understand that now he’s improving and growing stronger by leaps and bounds! Since this is a very rare stranding, everyone is learning a lot from this calf. We don’t know very much about them as adults, much less juveniles.

Q: What’s next in your future? What do you hope to be doing in 10 years?

A: I still have three more years of veterinary school left; to be a vet requires a four-year bachelor’s degree followed by four more years of veterinary school. After I graduate in 2017, I will most likely do two one-year internships and a three-year residency with the goal of becoming a board certified zoo veterinarian. There are many ways to become a zoo and aquarium vet but I think that’s the best path for me right now—however, I’m open to change! After the extra training, I’ll be looking for full-time employment in the field. It’s very competitive but it’s what I love and I’m determined to do it!

Thanks to Sarah for taking time to answer our questions and sharing her knowledge and enthusiasm with us—and the Vancouver Aquarium—this summer!

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Latest developments on Sea Star Wasting Disease (SSWD)

The Seattle Aquarium’s work on Sea Star Wasting Disease (SSWD) was recently featured in a segment on KING 5 News. Dr. Lesanna Lahner, staff veterinarian, is treating a group of sea stars showing signs of the disease with antibiotics to see if the medication helps the animals fight it off. The segment also received coverage on NBC’s national news.

Since the end of October 2013, when SSWD first began to appear in our local waters, the Seattle Aquarium has been actively collaborating with a variety of institutions—including the Vancouver Aquarium, SeaDoc Society, Cornell University, the Wildlife Conservation Society and the USGS National Wildlife Health Center—to respond to the ongoing unusual mortality event occurring in sea stars along the West Coast. The cause of the disease has yet to be determined.

For details on our work on this issue to date, please see our previous blog posts:

The Seattle Times also published an article in June that features the Seattle Aquarium and further describes the disease and its current and potential impacts in our local waters and elsewhere.

A recent update provided by Dr. Lahner inspired a thoughtful donor to make a significant gift toward the next stage of research on the disease. Click here to contribute to our efforts to further understanding of this disease and its cause.

Interested in learning about the disease in person? Visit the Seattle Aquarium (where all affected sea star species have been removed from our exhibits) and speak to one of our interpreters; or talk to one of our volunteer Beach Naturalists this weekend—they’ll be stationed at a number of our local beaches. Click here for a schedule, locations and directions.

Looking for other ways to make a difference?

Research on SSWD is just one of the Seattle Aquarium’s many research efforts. For information about our other projects, read our most recent research annual report, or visit the research page on our website.

Follow us on Twitter for more updates on SSWD as they emerge. We’ll also continue to update our blog and social media with details about the efforts to determine the cause of the disease.

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