It’s challenging enough to keep an aquarium operational; to meet the varying needs of different aquatic animals – from fragile weightless jellyfish to 200-pound harbor seals.
Hurricanes and record tidal surges make it even harder.
Jack Schneider, The Maritime Aquarium’s animal curator, and members of the animal husbandry staff went beyond the call last weekend to make sure all of the Aquarium’s creatures made it safely through hurricane Sandy.
On Sunday, as the storm approached, the seven harbor seals were moved from their exhibit into an interior portion of the building to ensure their safety. Also moved were a loggerhead sea turtle and the six stars of the “Meerkats” exhibit.
To complete these time-consuming efforts, Schneider and aquarists Vicky Sawyer, Kerry Dobson and Evelia Rivera came in on their days off to help the regular Sunday staff – Mark Wagner, Maxine Montello, Rachel Stein, Katie Hurley, Jeremy Meady, Christiana Mandina, Christy Varga and T.J. Whipple.
Our research vessel, Oceanic, needed attention too. Joe Schnierlein, manager of professional development in our Education department, and Mike McCarthy, one of our Oceanic captains, added extra lines to the boat and moved her to the adjacent Norwalk Seaport Association dock, where the pilings are higher. (Schnierlein would journey down Monday night to make sure Oceanic was secure.)
On Monday, the day of expected landfall, The Maritime Aquarium was closed but Schneider and members of the animal-husbandry and maintenance staffs were in for final preparations. They stacked sand bags against exterior doors and at – just in case – key locations inside.
Aquarist Vicki Sawyer and her husband, Jerry – himself a former Aquarium staffer – and Erik Holmberg of the maintenance staff spent Sunday and Monday nights at the Aquarium. Hurley, another aquarist, also slept over Monday night, through the worst of the storm.
Sleep wasn’t easy, with wind noises screaming in from all parts of the building.
The tidal surge brought 3 feet of water into the low walkway between the Aquarium and IMAX Theater. Outside, waves lapped up against the steps of the rear loading dock.
Power was lost in South Norwalk but Holmberg saw to it that the Aquarium’s two industrial-size generators kept the animals’ life-support and other vital systems humming.
Monday night, it was decided that more precautionary actions were needed for the animals. If water entered the Aquarium and shorted out the electricity to our pumps, the jellyfish would sink and die. So the Sawyers, Hurley and Holmberg painstakingly rounded up the jellies into big plastic bags and sealed each bag up with a good bubble of oxygen. They then floated these jellyfish-filled bags atop their tanks.
Fortunately, only a small amount of water backed up into the basement of the main building, in a non-public mechanical support room. On Tuesday, the Aquarium remained closed so the animals could be returned to their exhibits and the IMAX walkway could be cleaned and sanitized.
We were back open Wednesday, thanks to above-and-beyond efforts by our staff.