Photo courtesy of Birch Aquarium at Scripps Institution of Oceanography

With the exception of a very sharp and long-lived grouper called Harvey, La Jolla’s Birch Aquarium at Scripps has never given names to its sea animals. But many of the creatures have personalities and preferences, and an unprecedented lack of visitors is bringing them to the surface.

For once, the friendly sea turtle has no kids to watch through her tank’s window as she goes through her daily turtle business. The skittish tropical fish, meanwhile, are enjoying their freedom from prying eyes. And the seahorses are using this hiatus to breed like crazy.

These tidbits and more come courtesy of aquarist Michael Rinaudo, who’s on one of two teams of aquarium keepers that are watching over thousands of sea animals during the institute’s ongoing coronavirus closure.

The teams don’t see each other: They work separate days to lower the risk that they all could become sick with the coronavirus. If the pandemic worsens, the aquarists could directed to move into the aquarium and shut themselves off from the outside world, just like employees at a water plant in Carlsbad are doing.

“It’s a labor of love,” said Rinaudo in an interview. “You take care of these animals. It’s what you signed up for, and it’s important that they’re not abandoned.”

Which animals are most affected by the closure?

The sea turtle is probably the most outgoing of our animals. She’ll spend a lot of time at the window, especially in the morning, looking out to see what’s going on and interacting with people. These days she doesn’t seem as enriched.

What’s her story?

Photo courtesy of Birch Aquarium at Scripps Institution of Oceanography

She’s our carnivorous loggerhead sea turtle. We got her about five years ago after she got lost and beached in New Jersey. They shipped her to an aquarium in South Carolina for rehabilitation since she had two paralyzed hind flippers. She was also missing a scute – a plate in the back right of her shell.

They deemed her unable to be released into the wild. We took her in here. We’ve taken CAT scans of her at Thornton Hospital and given her physicals every six months. Researchers from UCSD printed up a 3-D prosthetic scute, and we put that in place.

We think she’s about 25-30 years old and weighs about 200 pounds. She’s doing really good.

I’m worried that she’s lonely.

She currently gets fed two days a week, and that will probably get pushed to three days a week. We’re still diving into her tank to feed her and scrub her shell, get her moving. She’s still getting a lot of attention, and she has some pretty amazing companions like broomtail groupers, sting rays and a leather bass.

How are other animals reacting to the lack of visitors?

Some of our tropical fish are shy and not very outgoing. But now they’re acting like they do in the mornings before we open up, and they haven’t been pushed back by kids who can smack on the windows and take flash photography. They seem to be out and about more in their tanks and are closer to the windows.

How are the seahorses?

Photo courtesy of Birch Aquarium at Scripps Institution of Oceanography

We’ve had a huge explosion of babies from the hippocampus erectus species. They’ve given birth to five clutches – usually about 300-400 babies – over the past month, although they have a big mortality rate.

Why do you think they’ve experiencing a baby boom?

We have amazing volunteers who feed the seahorses, but we’ve had to stop using volunteers. Two of us are doing the feeding, and maybe we’re feeding them a bit more.

How are you and the other keepers doing?

We have two teams. One works for a few days, then the other works for a few days. That way we’re not crossing over in case something happens and one of the groups gets infected with the coronavirus. We do Zoom calls, but it’s a weird transition to not see half of our group in person.

Will you mind being shut in if it comes to that?

It’s a labor of love. You take care of these animals. It’s what you signed up for, and it’s important that they’re not abandoned.

Randy Dotinga is a freelance contributor to Voice of San Diego. Please contact him directly at and follow him on Twitter:

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