Mornings at the Aquarium

The care and feeding of Point Pleasant’s seagoing stars.

A black tip reef shark plies the waters of the 58,000-gallon shark tank.
A black tip reef shark plies the waters of the 58,000-gallon shark tank.
Photo by Matt Rainey

Early in the morning, before any visitors arrive at Jenkinson’s Aquarium, the only sound is the water flowing through the filter of the koi pond. In a small room behind the penguin exhibit, supervisor Reagan Quarg pulls on black rubber boots and makes her way up a short flight of stairs to a door not much higher than her knees. When she opens it, the aquarium’s African penguins greet her with happy honks.

“These are my kids,” says Quarg, as the critters scurry around her legs. Quarg was studying environmental and marine science at the University of Tampa when she landed a summer job at the aquarium. Growing up at the Jersey Shore, she was partial to otters and dolphins, but after being assigned a decade ago to the penguins—the aquarium’s most popular residents—she was hooked. Now sporting a colorful penguin tattoo on her left forearm, Quarg helps scrub the floor and skim the penquin pool twice a day. “I wouldn’t have it any other way,” she says.

Housed in a big pink building on the boardwalk in Point Pleasant Beach, Jenkinson’s Aquarium opened in 1991. It was constructed atop a saltwater pool that had been a popular hangout in the 1970s and ’80s. Pumps used then still bring ocean water into the building for the tanks of fish. In addition to the penguins, major attractions on the first floor include the seal exhibit and the huge, glass-walled tank of Atlantic and Pacific sharks. A central feature is the actual pirate-ship model from the 1935 film Mutiny on the Bounty, starring Charles Laughton and Clark Gable. The second floor has more modest habitats for reptiles, amphibians, parrots and the world’s smallest monkey, the pygmy marmoset.

Among the individuals who help the aquarium thrive, passion for the animals is a common trait. “We have a very dedicated and compassionate staff,” says aquarium director Cindy Claus. Though staff members are trained in a variety of functions, each day they have a specific job. “It might be putting on the lights and making sure the critters are alive and well,” says Claus. “It might be doing the water testing, getting the seals’ food ready, or cleaning the birds or monkeys.” As she makes her morning rounds, she passes the koi pond. A turtle pokes its head above the water. “It’s time for him to eat,” says Claus.

The path to the kitchen is lined with tanks of worms, crickets and other bugs that will become sustenance for the reptiles and amphibians. Inside the kitchen, a walk-in refrigerator and freezer hold several days’ worth of food. “It’s a lot of fish, clams, shrimp and krill,” says curator Laura Graziano. A staffer thaws, rinses and measures the food for the aquarium’s denizens, who devour about 50 pounds a day.

Graziano picks up a bucket of food and steps carefully onto the metal walkway above the 58,000-gallon shark tank. She tosses in a handful of the cold slimy mix, setting off a frenzy of splashing water. The feed is actually for the smaller fish that live with the sharks. “They act like they have never eaten,” says Graziano. The sharks don’t eat the smaller guys, she explains, because the fish are healthy, can swim fast and would be too much work for the sharks to catch. The sharks are fed much larger chunks of the same feed three times a week. The meals are smaller, but more frequent than their natural diet.

Feeding time is a great way to connect with the animals. “Food is a good indicator of health,” says Graziano. “An animal can’t tell you that they are feeling under the weather, but the first thing they won’t do is eat. It’s their way to communicate.”

Assistant curator Katie Canady is among the humans who connect with the animals. This morning she is feeding the aquarium’s two seals, LuSeal and Seaquin, a hash of capelin, mackerel, squid and herring while going through a routine, mainly waves and salutes. It’s positive reinforcement, she explains as she squats on the tile floor of the seals’ lair. “It’s all to build up trust.” When the routine is over, Canady goes to work with a toothbrush the width of a tablespoon. “Just like humans, they can get gum disease and gingivitis and cavities,” she says.

The aquarium gets many of its residents through an exchange program with other facilities across the country. “It’s like, ‘I will trade you two blue angels for a moray eel,’” says Claus. Seaquin came all the way from California, while LuSeal was stranded in the Point Pleasant/Bay Head Canal. Jenkinson’s takes in other rescues—such as Ace, a sea turtle that was found frostbitten in 1995 in New York Harbor—and has successfully bred sea horses and other species on site. On occasion, the aquarium accepts donations of local species like bluefish from sport and commercial fishermen.

Everything that happens at the aquarium—when animals arrive, when they are moved, their health—is logged in says senior aquarist Linelle Smith, holding a leghthy chart. “Look,” she says. “A crab got moved.”

At other facilities, aquarists are responsible just for the fish. At Jenkinson’s, they maintain the tanks as well. They start the day making sure all the animals look healthy and the equipment is running properly. “No two days are ever the same,” Smith says. She could be scuba diving to remove an injured fish one day and the next squeegeeing water off the roof of the building.

Cleaning the shark tank is tricky. Staffers spend about an hour and a half underwater every other week scraping the glass and collecting the teeth that the sharks naturally shed. For safety, a net is used to section off a part of the tank separating the staffers from the fish, though the aquarium does not house any man-eaters. “No sharks really attack people,” says Smith. “I don’t think of them as dangerous.” Still, no one ever dives on a feed day.

The aquarists are also in charge of water testing, which plays a big part in keeping the animals healthy. Squeezed into a narrow laboratory in a converted storage closet, Nelson Saez, a former general interpreter, slips on a pair of plastic gloves and readies his test tubes. He is testing for nitrates, which, he says, come from decaying matter like plants and leftover food. Nitrates lead to the development of ammonia, which can sicken the animals.

Jenkinson’s is mindful not only of the animals within its walls, but beyond. The aquarium raises funds to support the preservation of rainforests in Costa Rica. Its own adopt-an-animal program supports animal-protection efforts around the world. In its classroom, the aquarium hosts talks on issues like shark finning and the effect of climate change on polar bears. In fact, Jenkinson’s is the only member of Polar Bears International without an actual polar bear.

“The whole idea is education,” Claus says. “If we are able to get you passionate about something, maybe you will go out and spread the word.”

Jenkinson’s is also part of an international effort to breed Lake Victoria cyclids, a fish species that has gone extinct in the wild. The goal is to return them to their natural habitat in Africa.

Other endangered species at Jenkinson’s include the corn snake and the tiger salamander, both natives of New Jersey’s Pinelands, a federally protected area that is still threatened by development and pollution.  “We like to butt up against protected areas,” says senior keeper Carol McCallum. Barnegat Bay is another fragile environment the aquarium addresses in its lectures.

Finally, at 10 am, the doors of the aquarium swing open; by noon, the facility is filled with kids rushing from exhibit to exhibit. While the new explorers take it all in, the aquarium’s staffers continue their focus on making sure everyone’s experience is one to remember.

Jenkinson’s Aquarium, 300 Ocean Avenue, Point Pleasant Beach.

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