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Vince Levesque, who helps take care of the sea animals at Birch Aquarium at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, has plenty of friends at work.
The octopus likes to say hello. The groupers seem to recognize him by sight. Even the sharks are polite, since they’re more interested in the food he brings than in his own potential as a convenient snack.
But not every ocean creature is so full of bonhomie. The mantis shrimp has the power to break through aquarium glass. The coral, a living animal, can be poisonous. And some of the jellyfish will sting him without a second thought, or even a first one. (They don’t have a brain.)
Ten aquarists, including Levesque, feed the animals and maintain the tanks at the aquarium. He also goes into the ocean to gather fish, jellyfish and other critters.
I took a behind-the-scenes tour with Levesque and asked him about the joys of his job, the personalities of the aquarium’s sea life and whether he ever surprises an unsuspecting kid or two.
What do you like about your job?
Basically, it allows me to have a very stress-free work environment. I get to care for the animals, and I’m rarely worried about all the pressures at work. My pressures are making sure I clean my tanks and keep my animals healthy. If things get really stressful, I go out to the ocean and go diving, and I get paid to do it.
We walk by the tropical fish and a brightly colored one catches my eye.
This blue fish looks familiar. What is that called?
(He chuckles) That’s called a blue tang or a regal tang. Around here, most people end up going, “Dory, Dory!” (That’s a character from the movie “Finding Nemo.”)
Kids can’t say it just once. They say “Nemo” when they see Nemo, but they have to say “Dory!” six or seven times. “Dory Dory Dory! Look, there’s Dory! Hi Dory!”
Do you have a sense of which sea animals know that you’re there?
Certainly some recognize us. It’s hard to say whether they recognize an individual. But we know some of the groupers recognize individuals, and the octopus probably recognizes people too.
We visit the aquarium’s octopus, which rises to the top of its tank to greet us. I reach my hand toward it, and a tentacle wraps around my hand. The tentacle begins to tighten, with the suckers sticking to my skin, and Levesque pulls it off with a bit of effort as it makes a slight scccritch sound.
They actually taste with their tentacles and those suckers.
When his suckers are smaller than a dime, you can pretty much shake him off if you really had to. But once they get to be about a nickel in size, you have to use your other hand to pull him off. And once they get about the size of a quarter, you’re not getting them off. They have the power to stick to you so well that you’ll either remove the sucker from their tentacle or you’ll remove your skin from you.
They’re a little bit smarter than a lot of animals. They need a lot of brain power to control all these suckers. They can control each one individually.
The octopus is pretty much alone. Do you think it’s bored?
Maybe a little. It’s not so much boredom as more that he has the normal animal instincts. They want to find food and mates. Everything they do, just like us, is to get to that end. When they want to explore things like this, it’s so they know their territory better and they can get more food than any rival.
The octopus suddenly rushes from the bottom of the tank to the top and sticks its head out of the surface.
Whoa! Was it getting air?
It was playing. It wanted to accelerate fast. They have a sac they can fill with water. They fill it to the maximum and then pump it all out. It’s having fun, if you can call it fun.
What’s its name?
We don’t name the animals. Our visitors and volunteers get too attached if we start naming things. We want to make things as natural as possible, and we have to help them understand these are not pets per se.
The closest thing we had to a pet was a grouper we had for about 30 years called Harvey. He was one who would recognize us and was the only named animal in the whole aquarium. We could even brush his teeth.
Why are groupers so smart?
They tend to be long lived, and most have some kind of group mating ground. They tend to be communal spawners: They’ll all go to a set spawning area. Usually things that migrate to a spawning ground have to have better memory and more social interaction. A lot of intelligence has to do with social interaction. Think about dolphins, monkeys and us.
Do you still feel a personal affection for these animals? Would you feel sad if this octopus died?
Not really. I don’t get that attached to them because they are my job. I’d more be frustrated if they passed away early. And remember that a lot of the fish aren’t going to live a long time. There are a lot that only live 1-2 years or 5 on the outside.
Do you have pets yourself?
Yes, I have two dogs. And yes, I do get attached to my dogs.
What are your feelings about seafood?
I don’t have any problems with it as long as it’s a sustainable option, so I’m not a big fan of things like orange roughy or Chilean sea bass. But I don’t mind things that are sustainable like mahi mahi, and there are even better choices.
Do boys and girls have different favorite animals here?
Nemo and Dory are high up on their list. As far as overall popularity, it goes the octopus, the jellyfish and the sharks.
If it’s a 13-year-old boy, sharks. Girls don’t seem to have one favorite animal unlike boys, who tend to be, “Violent thing! Yay!”
If it’s an Asian family, it’s usually the jellyfish because that’s more of a cultural thing. Little kids like the octopus a lot because of the way they move. They get fascinated by it.
Do you ever put your hand in the tanks from the back side of these walls and scare kids who are looking at the animals?
I don’t do it intentionally.
That’s too bad.
The worst thing I do is when I have to fill a tank, and it’s been emptied and just filling with water. I can see kids come up to it, and I’ll take the hose and turn it to the front glass and they’ll jump back. They won’t get wet or anything, but that’s probably the meanest thing I’ve ever done.
But I’m not here to be mean. I’m here to take care of the animals.