Saturday 19 October 2013

I kissed a seal and I liked it.

Benjamin Franklins grave & memorial.
So I arrived in Boston on Tuesday evening, and Anita, one of my collaborators at the New England Aquarium (NEAQ), picked me up from the airport. It seems like visits in October are to become a 'thing' for us - Miranda from my lab visited to begin the collaboration back in October 2011, and Anita visited Swansea in October 2012, so it's only right that I am here in October 2013! The hostel is amazing, and I am sharing a room with 5 other girls.

Anita teaches a lab at a local college on Tuesdays and Wednesdays so I had Wednesday to myself to get to know the city before visiting the aquarium on the Thursday. Armed with a map I set off on the 'Freedom Trail', a walking trail around the city which takes you to historic sites around the city, telling the story of the American Revolution. Boston is a great walking city, and I got to see lots along the way, including 'Little Italy' and Boston Common!

Baby lobsters in medicine cups!
On Thursday I headed to the aquarium for the first time, and was given a 'Visiting Researcher' pass - which, as it turns out has come in quite useful! Anita introduced me to her intern Rebecca, who is taking a gap year before university. She showed me the lobsters (they have ALOT), which were all stage 4 postlarva (basically, miniature lobsters which have survived the larval stage). They also have the European lobsters which we sent over 2 years ago - which have grown really big now - one of them is even on display in the aquarium! First, we censused the lobsters, checking any that had died/moulted/lost their name tags, and then fed them (mazuri, a sort of gel mixture, or mysis or brine shrimp). It's a really big job, and the interns also count the eggs on the large adult females. Later, I saw some of the experiments they are currently running, which involve colouration induced by diet, and some more shell disease work.

Beautiful blubber jellies.
I was also shown around some other research areas, where they culture coral and jellyfish, they were really beautiful, and it was difficult to get a nice photograph that did them justice. An interesting thing about the jellies is that all the tanks they are kept in have to have round bottoms, as in square cornered tanks can tear them as they are so delicate - some areas are just one cell thick!

Anita took me behind the scenes in the marine gallery, where I was able to see all the exhibits from the side that visitors never see, and also some of the conservation work that goes on at the aquarium. An example of this is the Red-Bellied Turtles, or Northern Red-Bellied Cooters, which are endangered in Massachusetts as in the wild, turtle eggs are eaten by animals such as raccoons and skunks. To prevent this, scientists are putting wire cages over turtle nests so that the eggs don't get eaten. When the turtles hatch in the Autumn, some of them are brought to institutions like NEAQ, and they are raised over the winter, so that they are big enough to resist these predators. These turtles don't go on display, as they are released back into the wild.

Haloween lobster!
I also got to meet the famous 'Halloween' lobster, a genetically coloured lobster caught by fishermen in October 2012 off the shores of Massachusetts. I suspect that it will make an appearance in the public gallery on 31st October. They also had horseshoe crabs, which I have never seen up close before, and an octopus, who are amazing escape artists, and I learnt that they only live for about 2 years, which shocked me as I thought they would live alot longer than that.. In the freshwater gallery they had an anaconda, some salmon and more turtles, amongst other things.

After lunch I was given a tour of the basement, where all of the water gets pumped in from the harbour, much like at Swansea University, but on a MUCH bigger scale. The giant ocean tank alone holds 200,000 gallons of water, which needs to be filtered (usually with sand), and heated to 22°- 24° C (yes, I had to convert that from Fahrenheit) - this gives you an idea of the size of the basement and filter tanks!

Feeding Myrtle some lettuce.
Last, but not least, I was given the opportunity to feed Myrtle, the green sea turtle who rules the Giant Ocean Tank, and has lived at the Aquarium since June of 1970! She is HUGE, and weighs over 500 lbs (227Kg!), which is surprising as she eats lettuce, cabbage, squid and brussels sprouts. There are other turtles in the tank, Kemp’s ridley and loggerhead, and there are divers who go down and feed animals individually with squirters and boxes of food, but Myrtle has to be fed separately at the top of the tank to be distracted, since she is so big and heavy, if you are a diver with food you don't want a 500 lb turtle pushing over your shoulder!

I had a chance after this to walk around the aquarium a little - and see the 'Lobster Nursery' exhibit, which contains one of my babies! It's also interesting seeing the displays which I have already seen from behind the scenes - I need to dedicate a few hours when I'm free to exploring the whole aquarium!

Dr. Innis checking over Trumpet.
After work I went for dinner and drinks at The Littlest Bar with Anita and a couple of her friends, before dessert at the renowned Mikes Pastry in Little Italy, where I tried their famed Cannoli, which is a sort of fried pastry dough rolled up and filled with a sweetened ricotta - I had amaretto flavour and it was DELICIOUS! After this, we walked through the city, which is really beautiful at night, and nice that I was able to explore it with some friends, who were also nice enough to walk me back to my hostel so I didn't get lost!  

Making seal friends.
This morning (Friday) I started at 8am for work in the Mammals Department, with Paul Bradley, the ‎Senior Marine Mammal Trainer. I met some volunteers, Meg, Tricia and Kim who I helped with food prep (sorting and chopping the fish, the seals get fed 4 times a day - some 5!), before going to watch the feeding and training of the Atlantic Harbour Seal. I was able to sit with the head vet, Dr. Charlie Innis, who was checking over a seal called Trumpet.

They also have California Sea Lions, and Northern Fur Seals in a separate exhibit, and Paul let me sit and watch him train Leu, their 2nd youngest fur seal, who was rescued off California last year, he is blind in one eye so wasn't able to be rehabilitated back into the wild. I was lucky enough to be able to feed him, and get some kisses!

Amelia gets her teeth cleaned.
After this I went back to the harbour seals again, this time I was allowed to observe Amelia, who let me rub her belly - the fluffy marine biologist in me was DYING of excitement! I should probably mention that in the picture of the trainer cleaning her teeth, she isn't holding open her mouth, she just holds her hand in that position and the seal will willingly open his/her mouth for teeth cleaning.

This afternoon, we went for a 'lab lunch' to a nice Italian restaurant called Bertucci's before it was back to work, and this time I mean real work! I met with Dr. Michael Tlusty, Anita's boss, who is also working on the shell disease project with us, and went through a couple of papers we are writing together.

I realise that this has been an extremely long blog post - I'm just excited, okay?! Last of all, on the way home I decided to book a place on one of the whale watching boat trips, and after seeing that I had my 'Visiting Researcher' badge, the woman at the kiosk gave me a free ticket! Told you it came in handy.

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