Aquarium diver bonds with marine life
Barbara Bailey picks up a brush and descends to the bottom of the giant fish tank at the New England Aquarium. Myrtle the Turtle knows what that means.
She glides effortlessly to her favorite spot amongst the manmade coral reef.
Barbara meets her there and begins scratching her back with a stiff brush.
Myrtle is in turtle heaven. She even looks like she’s smiling.
A Braintree resident, Barbara has worked at the aquarium for 24 years.
Shortly after graduating from UMass Amherst with a degree in environmental science, she began her career as an assistant shellfish biologist in Chatham.
She had one goal – to work with the animals at the New England Aquarium.
After a few years seeding the shellfish beds on the tidal flats of Chatham, a job opened up.
The job couldn’t have been farther from her goal of working with animals, but it was a foot in the door.
In time, her dream came true. She was put in charge of rotating exhibits.
From the first moment she worked with the eclectic wildlife of her exhibit, Barbara knew this was where she belonged.
She was at home among the hummingbirds, emerald tree boas, iguanas, and scorpions.
Her favorite animal in her first exhibit was a tarantula, the size of a dinner plate, who came from a breeder in Britain.
“She was very aggressive. I had to wear gloves and goggles when I was near her. She would drum her feet and stand up on her back legs when she was mad. She would shoot hairs out off her abdomen. They were very sharp,” Barbara said.
“She had venom but not enough to cause serious illness,” Barbara said.
Not so with the blue ringed octopus from Australia in Barbara’s second exhibit, called “Fantasy, Fears and Fish, A Myth-Buster.”
The tiny octopus was only three to four inches but her venom was extremely poisonous and could be fatal.
“She had beautiful blue rings and, if frightened, the rings would change intensity from dark blue to iridescent blue,” Barbara said.
In a few years, Barbara graduated from the small 30 inch high exhibit pools to diving in the giant tank.
She moved to Braintree, married Steven Bailey, who is now curator of the fishes at the aquarium, and over the years had two children: Alex, who is now a 15-year-old sophomore at Braintree High School, and Hannah, 11, a fifth grader at the Hollis School.
Barbara is now husbandry operations manager and registrar at the aquarium and dives periodically in the giant ocean tank.
An assistant curator, three full-time divers, and one diving safety officer are dedicated to the tank, feeding the fish and cleaning the water.
They are among the 220 full-time staff members of the aquarium.
There are five dives a day: four for feeding and one for cleaning. Each lasts 20 minutes.
She registers and tracks all animals coming in and going out of the aquarium.
“It provides a census of what type of animals are in here,” Barbara said.
She also makes sure that the aquarium is in compliance with all state and federal laws covering the collection and care of the animals.
Barbara is one of a team of aquarium workers who each year lead a group to the Bahamas to collect animals for exhibits.
Three staff members and nine paying participants go each year. The average cost to the guests is $3,500.
The group flies to Miami and boards a boat for the expedition. The trip lasts from seven to nine days.
They go with a wish list of animals they would like to collect.
The heart of the aquarium is the giant ocean tank, a towering four-story high cylinder of water.
Four huge sharks move effortlessly through the water. Their strong, sleek, streamlined bodies look like giant torpedoes searching endlessly for a target. Their mouths are always open slightly, bearing row upon row of pointed, curved, needlelike teeth.
“A shark can go through 30,000 teeth in a lifetime,” a staffer tells some awestruck children visiting the aquarium.
There are three sandtigers and one nurse shark. Each has its own personality.
The largest is Judith, who weighs 300 pounds and is nine feet long. She is accompanied by Markham, a male, and Gallilee, another female, on their nonstop journey through the cylinder of water.
Bimini is a nurse shark who often rests on the bottom of the 23-feet deep, 40-foot wide glass tube filled with 200,000 gallons of salt water.
Myrtle the Turtle is the biggest crowd pleaser at the aquarium: a 550-pound green sea turtle who has been the star attraction for more than 40 years.
“She came to us from Provincetown 20 years ago. No one knows how old she is, but she is over 70,” Barbara said.
She is so popular that a Myrtle the Turtle birthday party was held for her a few years ago, complete with a birthday cake made out of vegetables, including leafy green lettuce and string beans.
There were even candles on the cake, and the crowd sang “Happy Birthday.”
“Brussel sprouts are her favorite food, but we don’t give them to her too much. They can make her gassy,” Barbara said.
“It keeps her occupied while the animals are getting fed,” Barbara said. “She tends to get too interested.”
Myrtle shares the aquarium with over 600 different animals–barracudas, stingrays, moray eels, needlefish, and hundreds of multi-colored reef fish. They range in size from the inch-long fairy basslet to the 800-pound Judith.
On this day, two other divers joined Barbara at the underwater restaurant: Sarah Taylor and Enrique Mauser, a Northeastern coop student from Mexico City.
Sarah and Enrique hold long red poles. On the end is a chunk of squid.
Sarah sidles up to Judith and points the stick toward the huge shark’s slightly opened mouth.
Suddenly like lightning the needle teeth part and she snaps the food into her mouth.
Judith is followed by the three other sharks who devour the food in much the same way.
“This is the best job ever,” Enrique said as he emerged from the tank after feeding the sharks.
Sarah, who has been a diver for five years, began as a volunteer.
“You get to know the fish individually by feeding them,” she said. “You know if they’re healthy or not. You get very close to the animals. The hardest part of the job is when you lose one. That’s a bummer.”
After the sharks are fed, Barbara descends into the tank to feed the other fish.
Barbara is immediately surrounded as she hands out small chunks of food.
A huge flat stingray hovers an inch from the top of her head. Barbara pushes food into his mouth, which is in the middle of his underbelly.. The stingray floats away, only to return a few minutes later for a second helping.
The big ones gulp chunks of squid from Barbara’s open hand. The little ones snap up morsels floating in the water.
“They are beautiful and have a great personality,” she said. “They hover around near your mask when you’re feeding, waiting patiently for something.”
Barbara likes to interact with the public from inside the tank.
“Sometimes a child will put his hand on the glass and I’ll put mine against his and we’ll move our hands up and down,” she said. “Sometimes I’ll play tic-tac-toe with a child on the glass.”
Barbara hopes that her deep love of marine life is contagious.
“I enjoy my work because each day can be different from the next,” she said. “It’s not only the animals, but also the people I work with at the aquarium who make it enjoyable.
“They are the best in the industry and very dedicated to what they do: present, promote, and protect the world of water.”