The joy of discovery at the UGA Aquarium

Facility on Skidaway Island hosts a behind-the-scenes tour this Saturday

DO YOU remember the first time you went to an aquarium? Devin Dumont does.

As a kid, Dumont visited Sea World and was transfixed by the animals he saw. Now, he’s the aquarium curator at the University of Georgia Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant Aquarium over on Skidaway Island, and he gets to recreate that sense of wonder with behind-the-scenes tours, like the one being held this Saturday.

“These events are a lot of fun for me because I really subscribe to the philosophy that we want to spark an interest in people, and sometimes it happens just by them being here,” shares Dumont. “Hopefully they become more interested in studying, learning, and protecting Georgia’s coastal resources.”

click to enlarge The seahorse tank is sure to be a hit.
The seahorse tank is sure to be a hit.

Of course, the juicy part of the tour takes behind the scenes.

“I think people really start to put it all together when they’re back here,” says Dumont. “There’s a lot more involved than fish in a tank.”

Dumont and Lisa Olenderski are the only two full-time staff to run the aquarium, relying on help from student interns and volunteers.

“Larger aquariums have specialized teams to do very specific tasks,” Dumont explains. “I actually like being in this situation because we get to do a little bit of everything. I had to learn how to do all that stuff when I first started. My background was marine biology, but I had to become the plumber.”

One of the more fun parts of Dumont and Olenderski’s job is pairing the animals together.

“Lisa and I have to play fish Tetris sometimes,” Dumont laughs. “We have to factor in their behaviors and habitat needs. We really try to simulate natural environments, and that helps evoke natural behaviors. Fish can die from stress.”

Dumont points out the quarantine tanks on the wall opposite the display tanks.

“When we get new animals, we want to make sure they’re healthy and eating well before we place them in a display tank,” Dumont says. “Similarly, if there’s a little scuffle or incident and we need to use one of these as a hospital tank, or a time-out tank, we can. One of the benefits of coming behind the scenes is seeing the animals that aren’t on display yet.”

Since Dumont and Olenderski spend so much time with the animals, their interactions with the animals become more personal.

click to enlarge Devin Dumont on a tour.
Devin Dumont on a tour.

“The lobster was given to us by the Tennessee Aquarium a while ago, maybe around 2010,” says Dumont. “If groups are back here talking about things, they start to realize that each individual animal has a story—at least they do to me. I had to drive to Tennessee to pick up the lobster and drive eight hours back. Some kind of connection might happen there. It’s easily over 10 years old, and sometimes when children hear that, they’re like, ‘Really? It’s older than me?”

Another exceptional animal in the aquarium’s care is the octopus. The tank is remarkable because it has green AstroTurf around the sides, which Dumont explains is an octopus escape prevention method.

“They can’t get suction on the AstroTurf, and it irritates their suckers so they freak out when they touch it,” he says. “Octopi are really smart animals and they have the most developed brain of any invertebrate. They can problem-solve. One of the fun things we get to do is give them enrichment devices—toys. If we drop something in there, Octavius would just grab it and immediately investigate the shape and texture. We started to put live crabs in containers and he’d try to figure out how to get in there. You have to do that or else they start thinking about how to get out.”

Fortunately, the tour isn’t the only event coming up this winter, with everything from a youth conservation summit to a class on microplastics in fish. The tour is just a jumping-off point to discover the cool things happening at the aquarium.

Behind the aquarium is Georgia’s first oyster hatchery, housed inside the Shellfish Research Lab.

The hatchery, open for just over four years, is allowing harvesters to farm single oysters instead of the typical cluster formation.

“The main reason for starting this hatchery was the push and interest from the industry,” explains the Shellfish Research Lab’s director Tom Bliss.

click to enlarge Tom Bliss checking out the leases.
Tom Bliss checking out the leases.

“We do have leases in the water, and we have guys growing clams and wild harvests. There were quite a few interested in wanting to potentially get into oyster aquaculture.”

Since the state of Georgia doesn’t allow the importation of oyster seeds, it made sense for the UGA Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant to launch the hatchery.

The hatchery got a little extra publicity last month at Husk, where four varieties of oysters were served.

“Husk donated those proceeds, and that was their way of raising awareness,” Bliss says. “They did it the way of, ‘Let’s do something that brings people in so it reaches a different crowd.’”

One of the varieties came from E.L. McIntosh & Son Seafood.

“We didn’t provide the oysters—we’re just a hatchery—but there’s a good chance the McIntosh oysters came from the seeds we grew,” explains Bliss.

Keep an eye out for more fun happenings at the UGA Aquarium through the rest of the winter and beyond.

cs

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