Edited by: Margot Warshaw
My name is Sara Alewine and I am a volunteer at Aquarium Encounters, I have been volunteering here for over a year. As a volunteer and certified diver, I help with dive chores early in the morning. This means putting on a wet suit, strapping on a weight belt around your waist, and sliding into my scuba gear, to dive into the largest tank at the aquarium. Sometimes my granddaughter Lexi, who is also a volunteer and certified diver, helps clean the tanks in the morning as well. We start in the Predator Reef tank, cleaning the windows, scrubbing the coral, and vacuuming the floors, all while the sharks and predatory fish swim around us. Diving into the Predator Reef Tank with the sharks is my happy place. It is beyond exciting, and starts my morning at the aquarium off just right. To many this may seem crazy, but as a shark lover, it is a dream and a surreal experience. While vacuuming the predator reef tank, it is common to find lots of little shark teeth since sharks are always shedding teeth and replacing them with new ones. I would stay in that tank all day long if they would let me!
After the Predator Reef Tank, we hop out of the predator side and back in to the Coral Reef tank. These two tanks are actually one, sharing the same water but separated by pieces of glass, with water flowing between the two sides through feeding holes. Now you may think Vacuuming the floors, cleaning the windows and scrubbing coral isn’t all too fun, but imagine doing these seemingly mundane chores with hundreds of colorful fish swarming all around you. That is why I love getting in to these tanks, it’s a unique experience, and I love being underwater! Part of the morning chores includes hopping in to Stingray Cove, scooping up debris from food uneaten, and picking up teeth that the stingrays loose. This again sounds mundane, but these close encounters with the rays, especially the Big Ladies (my name for the four Southern rays), really creates a bond between you and these amazing animals. I talk to them as I clean up after them, and I swear they respond by helping me with the job. After wrapping up in Stingray Cove, I take a nice shower in the bathrooms and get ready to start the rest of my day out on the island talking to guests by our touch tanks.
When I started as a volunteer over a year ago at Aquarium Encounters, I had no idea what to expect. Most of my day is spent talking to guests about the animals we have in our touch tanks – stingrays of various species, conchs, sea stars, urchins, sea cucumbers and horseshoe crabs. Volunteering at Aquarium Encounters, blessedly, provides access to some wonderfully knowledgeable marine biologists. They love to educate all on our amazing marine life, and I sure have learned a lot since working with them. Lexi, my granddaughter has volunteered many times at the Aquarium and at some of the outreach events we take the animals to. I go to her frequently, asking for more information about the sea life here as well, since she is an aspiring marine biologist. Aside from educating guests on our animals, I also man the bait shack. This entails selling food to guests for our stingrays, tarpon, lobsters, freshwater turtles, and lagoon residents. It sometimes gets a little fishy, but that just makes the stingrays love on me even more!
As volunteers our primary concern is keeping our animals healthy and safe, and is of the utmost importance to the Aquarium. It is one of my main reasons for wanting to work there. We have volunteers who, like me, tend to be around all year long. Others come for just a short while during their stay in the Keys, and some students come to work during summer break. We appreciate all of the help we receive. Volunteering at the Aquarium has been a privilege and an honor. I have met so many people from all over the world, and enjoy speaking to them about the amazing marine life to be found in the Keys. I especially love talking to the children who visit; seeing the wonder in their eyes when they touch a stingray or a sea star for the first time, the excitement on their faces when they feed the tortoises or catching the comical looks when they see Fluffy’s face in the window! One day two girls said to me, “We wish you were our science teacher. You make science sound fun.” What a great compliment that was, and it made me so proud to be a volunteer and to have the opportunity to interact with so many people of all ages from all around the world. So next time you are around Aquarium Encounters and you see me there, please come say “Hi!”