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What Does an Aquarist Do? Behind the Scenes with Our Team

Have you ever wondered what goes on behind the scenes at an aquarium? There’s more to it than you might think, with a dedicated team working hard to take care of our animals while ensuring our visitors enjoy a memorable experience.
From skilled zoologists to passionate guest experience staff; it takes a lot of work and effort to showcase the beauty of our marine creatures. And so, to give you an insight into what goes on behind the scenes, we’re chatting to Stacey Tonkin, Aquarist here at Bristol Aquarium, about everything from her day-to-day work to what motivated her to pursue a career in aquaria.
Read our full interview with Stacey below.

Could you tell us about your role at Bristol Aquarium? What does your typical day-to-day look like, and what are your responsibilities?

My role at Bristol Aquarium is an Aquarist. This means it’s my job to look after all the animals and their tanks, feeding them, keeping them clean, and ensuring all the animals are happy and cared for as part of the zoological team.
The first thing we do every day is go around the whole aquarium and check that all the equipment for each tank is working and that all the fish are nice and healthy.
Next, we prepare the day’s food for each fish according to a strict diet plan, sometimes adding extra vitamins or creating enrichment by placing food inside things or on things for the animals to find and graze on. Each tank, or sometimes even specific fish, has a labelled pot their food goes into.
Throughout the day, we then work on a variety of tasks like scrubbing algae off of the inside of tanks, feeding the fish, educating visitors and answering their questions, doing some maintenance on the tank equipment, and checking and testing the water quality.
Stacey selfie with fish in background

What qualifications and skills are required to become an aquarist?

It’s helpful to have a BSc in Marine Biology or a biological science, however, it’s not a requirement if you can show relevant experience.
What is essential, however, is experience in working (or volunteering) in an aquarium, fish shop, hatchery or anywhere that keeps fish. If you keep fish tanks at home that is also really good experience, but I would recommend also getting experience from elsewhere.
Useful skills to have include organisation, record-keeping, creativity, an eye for detail and to be a practical person who enjoys working with their hands. It is also very important to be a caring individual.

What three pieces of advice would you give to someone pursuing a career as an aquarist?

First, start volunteering as soon as you can! If you can’t volunteer in an aquarium, then your local fish shop is a great alternative.
Next, it’s well worth keeping a fish tank at home. Not only will this give you experience of working with and caring for fish, but it also shows a genuine passion and interest in the job.
And on that note, I’d definitely say it’s a career for passionate people. The hours include regular weekend work and the occasional late night. People should also be aware that it’s not necessarily a high-earning career path; people do it for the love of the job over anything else.

From a career point of view, is there any extracurricular experience young people can gain which can supplement their efforts to becoming an aquarist?

Some kind of dive qualification is useful, but not essential, for jobs in some aquariums.
Public speaking skills can be beneficial, as the job often requires you to deliver talks or workshops. Of course, experience working with the public in a customer service-based job is also a really valuable asset – ensuring that you can provide the very best visitor experience when interacting with guests.
aquarists pose for picture

Are there any resources or organisations you’d recommend where people can find help and advice on entering the aquarist field?

Here are a few organisations and courses I’d recommend for anyone looking to pursue a career as an aquarist:

What would you say is your favourite exhibit within the aquarium?

My favourite exhibit is our second largest tank – the Coral Seas. It’s a beautiful, tropical saltwater tank with four different viewing areas, which not only give you the chance to see our larger animals, including Sheila the giant grouper and our four honeycomb moray eels, but also the creatures that live in the crevices of the coral, including our smallest (but very important) fish, the cleaner wrasse.
First, you get to see it from above by walking over a bridge. Then, there’s a huge concave bubble which you can reach out into, providing a truly unique perspective. Next, you can go underneath it through an underwater tunnel, and lastly, there is a floor-to-ceiling window where you can sit and watch the fish.

Do you have a favourite species at the aquarium? And which animals are the most interesting to work with?

My favourite species is our pufferfish! I really enjoy working with them because they have such sweet faces and expressive eyes and are also super clever.
We have trained them to eat from a coloured floating hoop at the surface of the water. Marky, our starry puffer, eats from a blue hoop and Simon, our porcupine puffer, eats from a white hoop.
I personally find the animals that respond to animal training the most interesting to work with, for example, our groupers. We have two species of grouper that we have target trained. A giant grouper named Sheila that comes to a black cross on a white background for her food, and our three Atlantic wreckfish, which follow a blue ball as their target for food.

If you could introduce one animal into the aquarium, regardless of size and practicality, which species would it be and why?

I would have a pitch-black display to house UK ctenophores, which are bioluminescent!
The display could teach people about the deep sea and the creatures which create their own light.

In your view, what makes Bristol Aquarium special? And what tips and advice would you give to visitors on how to make the most of their experience?

The large native display is, in my opinion, one of the great assets of Bristol Aquarium. I think it’s important to show what amazing wildlife can be found here in the UK, right on our doorsteps.
For visitors, I would recommend going around in the morning, have lunch, and then go around again, because the animals move around and display different behaviours throughout the day.
For example, most shark species are nocturnal, and so become more active in the afternoon. I would also recommend asking our staff questions. Everyone in the aquarium, from our guest experience staff to our zoological team, will be able to share some amazing animal facts with you and your family.
fish feeding
Special thanks to Stacey for taking the time to fill us in on her role here at Bristol Aquarium. If you’d like to drop by and say hello to Stacey and our wonderful animals, visit the homepage for information on tickets and opening hours

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