A day in the life of an aquarist
(Disclaimer: Interview was conducted prior to the implementation of circuit breaker measures on 7 April 2020)
Ever thought what it would be like to care for aquatic animals (fish, sharks, sea jellies etc.)? I mean we obviously know about the dog/cat whisperers and the zookeepers who take care of all the animals (fish or not). But today, we will dive into Kenneth Kwang’s underwater world at S.E.A. Aquarium where he works as an aquarist!
Kenneth’s love for the marine world began when he was just a little boy. As he grew up, he nurtured that passion and worked hard to get to where he is. After graduating from secondary school, Kenneth followed his passion and enrolled in Temasek Polytechnic’s Diploma in Applied Science (Aquaculture) instead of popular courses like business and engineering.
“This is why I said, okay, I’ll pursue something I really like.” Kenneth mentions as he reminisces about the path taken to lead him here. But the journey has not been as smooth as he hoped it would be.
Initially, his parents were not exactly thrilled about the idea of him being an aquarist. “When I first got this job, my mom wasn’t really happy about it. Like most of the generation before ours, they didn't really know about this job scope and they thought I was selling fish or owned a fish shop!” Kenneth laughs.
Kenneth’s parents own a family business, and they wanted their only child to follow in their footsteps as they did not understand what the job of an aquarist entailed. However, after explaining the demands of the job, they slowly grew to accept it and are now supportive of his choice, albeit occasionally worrying about his safety since the work is physically demanding – having to dive and swim alongside marine animals.
A DEEPER DIVE
Before going about their daily tasks, Kenneth starts off his morning with a team meeting to discuss and allocate tasks that need to be accomplished for the day.
The team splits into two – while one team prepares the feed required for the fishes, the other conducts maintenance and cleaning tasks on the habitats, while checking on the fishy residents.
In the food preparation kitchen, a group of aquarists work together to defrost, wash and chop up various food items for the marine animals. The feed is delivered in various ways – minced or diced for smaller animals, while larger animals can consume large cuts or whole feed.
The residents at S.E.A. Aquarium are fed restaurant quality food everyday - the big manta rays get small planktonic feed like krill, while animals like sharks feed on mackerel and tuna. How about the small fishes? They have something called a grazing diet, which means that they scour the waterbed or corals and munch on algae and polyps. Other fishes such as the clownfish has a symbiotic relationship with anemones! By working together, the clownfish gains protection from larger fishes when it swims through the anemones, while the anemones receive essential nutrients such as nitrogen, from the fishes’ waste.You may be thinking how the clownfish gets protection, well, the anemones’ tentacles contain stinging cells which only the clownfish have immunity against.
Kenneth and the other aquarists will then suit up and dive into the habitats to feed the fishes, clean and maintain the habitats by scrubbing rocks and wiping the glass panels, while doing a quick check on the animals. The check allows Kenneth and his team to observe the health and well-being of the animals before the aquarium opens to the public.
Working in the aquarium and being in close contact with the marine animals daily has instilled a strong sense of attachment within Kenneth. When we asked him what his favourite task was, he answered without hesitation that it was his morning system checks. “This is the best time where it's just you and your fishes, it’s the only time where you can get the whole aquarium to yourself. It's just you, silently watching the animals thriving among the corals.”
The animal that Kenneth is particularly fond of are the manta rays. The S.E.A. Aquarium has three reef manta rays which Kenneth took care of for two years. “We actually go down to monitor each of them individually. We look for things such as the amount of food they partake and how they are doing physically.”
The aquarists, through positive conditioning sessions and daily interactions, have developed a deeper understanding of the unique behavioural characteristics of the three manta rays. Animal enrichment programmes have been designed to promote the manta rays’ mental and physical well-being where the animals respond to the cues of aquarists providing visual stimuli. Manta rays are one of the world’s smartest fishes, with the largest brain to body mass ratio of any fish. “Usually by a simple cue such as raising our hands, our manta rays come over and from that, we know that they’re responding well.”
Being an aquarist is not a regular 9-to-5 job and Kenneth has felt discouraged at times. This is due to the physically demanding nature of the job with daily dives and carrying of heavy items, in addition to having irregular work hours.
Attention to detail is paramount to Kenneth’s job of caring for the animals, which may prove to be mentally draining at times. Meticulous planning is required to properly care for the animals and maintain the habitats.
Even through all the hard work, Kenneth reminds himself that no matter how tough it gets, he is in this purely for the love he has towards all the animals. “If you asked me to stick myself in an office job and look at screens, I can’t do that. I would rather stare at fishes every morning than at computer screens.”
Being an aquarist for four years has helped train Kenneth to be adaptive as he has to deal with the different behavioural characteristics of the animals, as well as learn to work with other aquarists beyond those from this workplace.
Kenneth is also more conscious in his efforts to live more sustainably, and now makes an effort in reducing the use of plastics. “Every single step you guys take in your personal lives affects something else. So if you think about it, reducing your plastic use also helps reduce plastic pollution in our waters” he said, in hopes that everyone will make an effort to live sustainably.
"Kenneth is an inspiring example for those who are thinking of whether to pursue their dreams and those who are willing to work towards their passion against the odds. While it is a norm that most parents would like their children to get a well-paid regular 9-5 job, Kenneth’s passion and care for marine animals have stood out and gained support from his parents. It is most ideal to marry passion and work together. Hope to see more young individuals brave enough to pursue their passion and dreams. We need these enthusiastic young individuals to bring our industries to greater heights. Everyone has a role to play in every job. You will find joy in being appreciated in various uncommon jobs that interests you."
- Annie Lee, Attractions, Resorts & Entertainment Union (AREU) EXCO Member
Through the eyes of our nEbO youth writer, nEbO Labour Month aims to introduce lesser known, yet interesting jobs to youths out there. This series seeks to encourage youths to be inspired and pursue their dreams through real-life stories of our profiles, as well as appreciate the uncommon jobs in various interesting fields.
nEbO is the junior membership arm of NTUC. It is a lifestyle club that actively reaches out to youths aged 12 to 25, socially engaging them in creating a vibrant community that is Work-Ready, World-Ready and Life-Ready. Find out more about what we do at nebo.sg.
Written by: Keisha John
Posted by nEbO Admin on 8 May 2020, 9:45 am
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