Note: I decided to edit this story today (5/13/2015) to clean it up a bit and add some photos that had disappeared during the migration between my old blog and the new site (along with adding the photo of me in my chain mail). At the time of the original writing in March of 2011, I was in school and playing World of Warcraft in my spare time.
I hope you enjoy the revamped version of “A Fish Story” taken from my time as a Naturalist and diver at Shark Reef at Mandalay Bay.
It’s time for a fish story.
While I was doing my bit of daily questing in WoW yesterday, I went and picked up the fishing daily called “Rock Lobster.” Before you even ask, yes, it’s named after the song by the B-52’s. However, here’s the part that sticks out: in the quest instructions it reminds you to watch out for sharks. And yes, there are some fairly large sharks in Stormwind Harbor. While doing the quest, it reminded me of one of my favorite fish stories, from my days working at an aquarium.
Well, how can you work at a predator-based aquarium filled with sharks and not at least have one colorful story to share?
At the turn of the millennium, part of my job as a Naturalist was to suit up in a wetsuit and scuba gear, (often chain mail too) and dive the aquarium’s exhibits. Back then, all of the departments, Aquarists, Dive Specialists, Educators (which included the Naturalists) and Engineering Staff, chipped in to share the load of cleaning the acrylic windows, artificial coral and give an occasional wave at the passing tourists. We were stakeholders in making sure the aquarium was the very best it could be so we could better share our love of the animals with the guests we interacted with on a daily basis. Along the way, I got the proud distinction of being the very first female Naturalist to dive the main exhibit at Shark Reef.
To put it in a nutshell, I’ve been bit in the hand and backside (along with a few other places) by sharks. Before you get excited, don’t worry, none of them were big enough to do any real damage, you just had to expect that given where you worked, it was just an occupational hazard. And YES, a shark really did bite me in the butt. Laugh if you must, but the baseball-sized bruise was nothing to laugh at, thank you very much.
One of my funnier stories about my time at the aquarium is the day I had a close encounter with a Zebra Shark who thought my head looked pretty tasty. Yes, you read right, my HEAD.
Back in the day, there was a juvenile female Zebra Shark by the name of “Priscilla” who lived in one of the exhibits. We all just called her “‘Scilla” (yes, after Elvis’ wife) for short.
Before we get into what ‘Scilla did on that warm spring afternoon, let’s talk about Zebra Sharks. Not to take the wind out of the Discovery Channel and Shark Week’s sails, I’m just give you a quick little precis, particularly about what’s going on with the business end since that’s what I encountered first hand (or head, in this case).
Zebra sharks patrol the ocean floor, much like a Nurse shark. Their staple diet are things like mollusks, crustaceans and other bottom dwellers along with the occasional fish. Short answer is that it feeds like a vacuum cleaner. How it works is that they literally suck in everything in front of their mouth with one big, quick gasp. To facilitate this feeding style, mother nature situated their mouths facing down, here have a picture:
The “dangerous” teeth for a Zebra shark are located in the back of the mouth, but they don’t work like yours or mine, it works more like a meat grinder. The little teeth up front act purely to get some grip and hold onto their prey while they suck their food into the grinding teeth in the back. So basically, this shark (and others similar to it) is a swimming Hoover. Once she sucks something up, it’s going to have one hell of a time getting loose.
The other thing you’re going to see right away is that there are no big teeth in front, no, no, that would be too obvious. The part that makes this shark so adorable is that they look harmless, which we all know is the best way to conceal a mischievous spirit. Had ‘Scilla looked menacing, she wouldn’t have been able to pull the hijinks she did and get the ancillary nickname of “finned menace”.
Ok, so now that you are up to speed on the oral physiology of this fish, let’s go to the scene of the crime.
It was a wonderful Wednesday afternoon, and I got assigned to clean the second largest exhibit in the place, one known by the staff as “A7.” So, I get suited up, pull my pack (BC, Rig and Tank) onto the caddy, we make the five minute walk over to the exhibit and my dive buddy and I get into the water.
Cleaning an aquarium exhibit is a lot like cleaning your fish tank at home, except we were armed with pressure washers, scrub brushes and window cleaning gear. Where as you cleaning your home aquarium has you reaching into the tank, we swam in the exhibits. To be honest, you know those little aquarium decorations like the bubbling treasure chest and the little diver dude featured in Finding Nemo? I felt like a girl version of the little diver dude. But I digress.
So, there I was in the exhibit, swimming around cleaning fake coral. Not a bad way to spend two hours of your work day, is it? As was the norm, every time we got into the water, we became an immediate attraction for every tourist that passed by the exhibit windows. Dive after dive, I waved at drunk college students, drunk adults and families of all shapes and sizes. They squealed, “Oooh! Diver!” I thought, “Yeah! Oooh! Look at the Underwater Janitor.”
That afternoon I was doing my usual scrubbing on a piece of table coral when I looked up and saw a man at the window holding his infant daughter. So, I put my scrub brush into the pocket of my BC and went to do some ‘guest interaction’ time. I figured I would go play with the baby for a minute then go back to scrubbing. I swam up to the window to find the baby riveted on me and my bubbles. So, I took out my standard regulator (that’s the mouthpiece that gives you air, you know) and replaced it with my spare emergency one (also known as an ‘octopus’). I swam closer to the window and held out my regulator and tapped my purge button. (The purge button purges water from the regulator so you don’t breathe in water, it also happens to make a good bunch of entertaining bubbles for babies watching you dive.) As I held up the regulator, the baby reached for it on the other side of the acrylic, as if to say, “pacifier?” Ok, how novel is that for a kid, a bubbling pacifier? It was cute and the father was having a laugh riot watching the baby trying to grab hold of it. It was right in the middle of the cute series of events that ‘Scilla just had to get in on the action.
Before I go further, I must say this for ‘Scilla, I really liked that fish. She was beautiful, had some spunk and she also, on a previous dive, did something that I will never forget. A few months previous, my dive buddy for that exact same exhibit was my ex-husband, and for that particular dive, we used AGA Masks (underwater coms, very cool tech) that let you talk while you dive. Mid-way through the two-hour dive, out of nowhere, the headphones in my mask begin to blare with him swearing up a storm in French. The image of what I saw when I turned around is now burnt permanently into my memory. I spun around to find a 6’4″, 225 pound man standing in the middle of the exhibit for all to see, freaking out with ‘Scilla attached to his whatevers. She latched on and bit him in the groin and had no intention of letting go anytime soon. I don’t care who you are, that’s funny right there. The more he tried to pry the fish loose, the harder she bit down. Finally, by some miracle, he got her to let go, but all during the process, I was rendered helpless, I nearly drowned I was laughing so hard. Point to ‘Scilla! Fish 1, Ex-Husband 0. How, and more importantly WHY, that fish got attached to his crotch, I’ll never know, but every time I remember turning around in the exhibit only to see him freaking out with a shark attached so extremely (and uncomfortably) close to his privates, it still makes me laugh really hard. My point is, she was definitely a repeat offender. It didn’t matter who you were, if you were in the exhibit with ‘Scilla, you knew something was bound to happen because she held nothing and no one sacred. (Imagine a Jack Russell with fins…that was ‘Scilla.) Which leads us back to that Wednesday afternoon with me, ‘Scilla and the baby.
So there I am playing with the baby on the other side of the exhibit window and all of a sudden I feel this huge, painful YANK at the top of my head. I immediately stopped what I was doing and reached up to feel what was yanking at me. I reach up with both hands, and feeling around the object, I figure out…it’s ‘Scilla…and she’s got the top of my dive hood in her mouth along with a large chunk of my hair and some scalp. Only one exasperated word flashed through my mind as my eyes narrowed…”FISH.” Well, it was only a matter of time, wasn’t it? (It’s karma. This is what I get for laughing at my ex-husband.)
At seeing the shark intentionally attach itself to my head, the dad holding the baby went pale. He’s watching me with this shark stuck to the top of my head, the fish and its’ tail waving around like a fancy Vegas showgirl headdress! I’m smacking the fish with my hands, grabbing onto the bulk of its’ body with both hands and yanking at it, trying in vain to get it off. Meanwhile, the dad holding the baby yells to his wife, and with the wife comes about 50 people and they’re all watching me yanking on that stupid fish to get it off my head. Just as before, the more ya pull, the more ‘Scilla digs in.
After about five minutes of me with my arms up trying to remove the shark from my head, I finally give it all I’ve got, and in the process I removed the fish, and by extension, a chunk of my hair, my mask and my hood. (If you’d insert the sound of a cork coming out of a champagne bottle, you wouldn’t be far wrong.) I couldn’t see anything after I got the fish off my head, so I swam to the surface. When I got to the surface of the water, I spit out my regulator and yelled out for my dive tender, screaming, “Bonnie! I’ve been accosted!” She looks at me and says, “‘Scilla?” I laughed and said, “Yep.” It was then that Bonnie looked at me and said, “Sheri, where’s your hood and your mask?” I replied, “In ‘Scilla’s mouth,” at which we both erupted into laughter.
Looking down through the surface of the water to try to find the fish that decided to make off with some of my dive gear, I spot her swimming on the other side of the exhibit. I swim over, get my gear back, I put my hood and mask back on, put my regulator back in my mouth and submerge again, thinking that I was just going to go back to cleaning coral.
As I submerged, I glanced back to where the baby was before the whole mess began. And what do you think I was faced with? About 100 people with mouths hanging open who had just witnessed ‘Scilla and I battling it out, her stealing my stuff along with a little patch of my hair! I go back into the window and wave, but all I got were people holding up the “ok” sign with their hands, worried if I was okay or not. I gave them the “ok” sign in return and they all started clapping and cheering. I even played it up a bit as ‘Scilla swam by again, making moves like a boxer warming up. Lucky for me, the crowd moved on and I got back to work. When I got out, we walked back across to the locker room and all we heard was “did you see the diver get bit in the head?”
‘Scilla is still swimming around in that aquarium, albeit in a bigger exhibit, to this day. I still really do love that fish. She’s got style, on top of that, there weren’t many divers she didn’t accost at that aquarium. She grabbed just about any body part she felt like, heads, scalps, ears, fingers, arms, legs…whatevers…(it’s going to be a long, long time before I let that one go.) I’m still convinced she was like a puppy who just wanted lovin’s and attentions. She was a sweetheart, that was unless she was attached to one of your body parts.
I miss ‘Scilla sometimes, head biting and hair pulling aside, I’m always grateful to her because without her I wouldn’t have a great story to tell.
But I guess everyone has a fish story or two like that, don’t they?
For those of you who haven’t seen it, here is a photo of me in 2000 geared up in my chainmail, diving the main exhibit A13 or as it is known “The Shipwreck”: