Life as an Aquarist During COVID-19 at the Hatfield Marine Science Center
Colleen Hill, Senior Aquarist
Aquatic Animal Health Program
Oregon Sea Grant
We are nearing the end of the 8th week of the COVID-19 “temporary” closing of the Visitor Center at Hatfield Marine Science Center. Our husbandry staff has had to evolve and settle into the new normal of work life. It was just a short time ago, yet seems like months rather than weeks, in early March that a flurry of news reports and emails about COVID-19 started being the main topic of our everyday conversations. The COVID-19 related news ranged from educational and informational about the novel virus to recommendations about selfcare and protecting others to inquiries about how everybody else is responding to the news.
In an email the second week of March to the Husbandry Team from our program lead Dr. Tim Miller-Morgan, we were advised to engage in some new protocols including: social distancing, increased hand washing and asked to adhere to a new increased disinfection protocol that instructs us to use isopropyl alcohol to wipe everything we touch before, during, and at the end of our shifts. We were also encouraged to explore remote working options for administrative duties if at all possible. We adjusted our regular group meetings to occur in a more opened up space to aide in social distancing and encouraged to take care of ourselves and stay home if one is feeling ill. We immediately made several other changes. We asked our volunteers to stop coming in at this time for their safety and ours. We also canceled Spring term Internships and Practicum experiences. Our student aquarists were tasked with the extra duties to help in the absence of our husbandry volunteer help.
Because of the ever-increasing concern about COVID-19 and the changes directed by the Governor and the administration at Oregon State University the husbandry team continues to adapt and change daily routines, animal care protocols, staffing schedules on the fly. We saw the biggest shift to our routines on March 14, 2020 due to the “Stay at Home Orders” from the governor of Oregon. These orders required nonessential employees to stay home. Consequently, only essential staff such as the Husbandry Team, as well as the Facilities Crew and a handful of lab managers, are the only staff members that are allowed to work onsite at Hatfield Marine Science Center. As much as we would love to bring our work home we cannot. There is a recent meme going around on social media of a marine biologist under strict stay at home orders with a shark in his bathtub that comes to mind but that unfortunately isn’t reality for us. The husbandry staff must continue to care for our many animals at the Visitor Center.
Over the past weeks we have continued to make changes to our daily routines in order to save us time. These efforts have included consolidating some compatible animals in order to take some usually very high maintenance systems offline and changing our exhibit light timers to turn off earlier than normal to cut back on algae growth and therefore decrease the time we spend cleaning algae off acrylics. Since we are now the only ones on the floor throughout the day, we can leave our doors open, our many ladders and tools out, and our floor trenches uncovered. This has been a huge time saver and also cuts down on the potential spread of our germs because we do not have to touch these pieces of equipment as often. Our weelkly husbandry meetings are now conducted via Zoom to further reduce our contact.
By practicing time saving routines our aquarists have found more time to focus on other areas of our jobs that we usually put on the back burner. Plumbing projects have been started and completed in the education labs. The VC aquarist has completed many deep cleans of exhibits in the Visitor Center while two exhibits remain empty and drained until further notice. Routine animal health exams have been increased. We continue the Visitor Center giant Pacific octopus feeds at the regularly scheduled times in order to continue to engage with our online viewers on the OctoCam. We ‘ve also been able to focus more time on animal enrichment and have introduced our octopus to a former student’s octopus painting easel. The entire husbandry staff is also being engaged and enriched with continued education opportunities that have included various online workshops, online conferences and frequent postings on our Facebook page.
On week four the CDC recommended of increased mask use. Unfortunately, we had donated all our masks to the local hospital. A call to our dedicated volunteers stuck at home resulted in a care package of DIY masks within 2 days of our request. We now wear masks at all times when someone else is in the same room or general area. We also moved many frequently used items such as daily records logs, dry animal food, and some cleaning tools out of our small food prep room to reduce congestion during our aquarist’s daily routines. This allowed us to distance ourselves from each other even more. In addition, assigned workspaces were moved and work schedules were shifted around to prevent close contact with each other. Now an aquarist can go through the whole workday without seeing another coworker unless we have a meeting online. “Nice to see you” has taken on a whole new meaning. There has been a definite shift from team work to working mainly alone which is tough for some of our more social aquarists. The facility is quiet. It’s a quiet that one only usually experiences early in the morning or at the very end of the day but this is the new normal for us.
We all look forward to the day when our vibrant Visitor Center again filled with our coworkers, our dedicated volunteers, and visitors from near and far. Until then we’ll be here taking care of the animals, cleaning the exhibits, feeding and engaging with the octopus and our other animal in a very quiet Visitor Center!