Get To Know The People Who Swim With The Sharks

Jessica Cassyle Carr
5 min read
Joanna Gruger feeds the fish at the Albuquerque Aquarium. (Jessica Cassyle Carr)
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Gravel is working its way under a screen lining the floor of the tank that houses huge stingrays, four species of sharks and a variety of other fish. Joanna Gruger and Sage Butts are repairing the problem, wielding a pipe that sucks up the gravel and spitss it to another side of the tank. They’re submerged, communicating with hand signals as they clear the area. Curious turtles hang out with the divers as they work. Were they not on display at an aquarium in the desert, the animals in this tank would inhabit the Gulf of Mexico.

There are jackfish and grunts. Trumpet fish and honeycomb cow fish, finicky eaters that must be individually fed, also live here. This tank shares a wall with another, each containing a puffer fish. The two sometimes stare at each other across the glass. 

Andy Allison points out a small, brightly striped fish in the shark tank called a sergeant major. He describes the species’ territorial nature and its will to defend the patches of exhibit it claims. Allison is the
aquarium’s assistant curator, and as we pass the tank that houses busy lobsters, he admits a fondness for the large arthropods.

"A lot of people that like to work with animals, that identify with them, may not get along as well with people," he says. "Animal people don’t always make good people people."

This sometimes creates a paradox for the aquarists in dealing with the public. Allison confesses it can be nuisance when trying to work, just before we step out of a secluded room where the jellyfish are cared for. "We also realize they’re the reasons we have jobs," he says. "This is a city aquarium, and the aquarium belongs to the people, so they’re the reason we’re here. They pay our salaries."

Across the tank sit several cages with fish inside. Allison explains to an aquarium visitor that these are new fish being acclimated to their home. If the fish enter the aquarium on edge, they could get scared, chased and eaten. 

Allison says shark-on-human danger is not a huge concern. "The only ones we worry about at all are the sand tiger sharks." Lazily gliding around the tank, this shark species is large with teeth sticking out of its mouth, giving the fish a partially terrifying, partially comical look.

Allison says the aquarists’ unease about the sand tiger sharks doesn’t have to do with aggression. It’s more of a personal space issue. "They’re large, kind of lumbering brutes. They don’t always seem like they’re aware of their surroundings. And they’re big animals. They expect things to get out of their way. So, if it decides not to get out of our way, and we don’t notice it coming, it could run into us." Even if sand tiger sharks don’t bite, because their teeth protrude, they can scratch divers and cause damage. Other sharks, such as sandbars and blacktips, are more active, agile and tend to stay out of the way. 

Despite the relative safety, Allison says the aquarium staff doesn’t like to take risks. Occasionally, he says, if something weird happens in the tank, such as a random fish feast, they will cancel a dive. When a shark does decide to chow down on one of the easy targets such as a grunt, hormones released into the water can trigger an near feeding frenzy. "They get more active … not to say they’re dangerous, but they get unpredictable when they’re like that." Allison says the aquarists always dive with a buddy, which enables them to keep an eye on  one another. 

Large stingrays, boneless relatives of the sharks that fly around the tank, are of no safety concern. Along with various fish, including some shark pups just born at Albuquerque Aquarium, there are smaller stingrays living in the Shallows and Shores exhibit near the building’s front entrance. At feeding time they hungrily swarm and flap around the aquarist in the same way that dogs beg for treats. She’s feeding them brine shrimp, which are otherwise known as sea monkeys.

At the aquarium they don’t give fish names, Allison says. "These are wild animals. They’re not pets. We don’t want to get too attached to them." 

Back in a room filled with enormous pumps, a myriad of mechanisms and loads of salt, it’s clear the amount of effort that goes into running the aquarium. For a facility located in the desert, without easy access to water or sea creatures, the whole production begins to seem like a truly amazing feat. And, as Allison notes, "A lot of cities a lot bigger than Albuquerque don’t have an aquarium this nice.”

Jessica Cassyle Carr


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