The Aquarium is currently open to the public. In response to COVID-19, we’ve made some essential changes to ensure a safe and enjoyable experience for all.
Essential staff from departments across the organization continued to report for duty during the shutdown, navigating new safety protocols and updates to staff scheduling while maintaining the highest level of commitment to their roles.
Read on for a behind-the-scenes look at how our dive safety, life support, guest services and Animal Care and Rescue Center teams continued to operate during a global pandemic.
The dive safety team at the Aquarium is small but mighty: including Holly Bourbon, director of dive programs, there are five members. In order for any dive to occur at the Aquarium, a member of this team must be present and a detailed dive plan has to be reviewed and approved beforehand. During the shutdown, the dive safety team continued these duties, while also managing the daily tasks for the 130 volunteer divers who were not permitted in the building.
While the building was closed, there were about 10 to 12 dives per week—about half the normal occurrence—and Holly's team performed these dives with staff from throughout the organization.
According to Holly, most members of her team are trained as aquarists, and their ability to stay nimble and work cross-functionally was key during the shutdown.
"My team helped to fill the gaps where the husbandry team was not able because of staffing," she said. "We filled in where we were needed ... we're very well-versed in crossing over and helping with other teams."
Taking care of our aquatic animals wouldn't be possible without the unsung heroes on the Aquarium's life support team. A typical day for a life support team member begins with taking water samples from the exhibits, checking systems, backwashing filters and other daily maintenance tasks, including adding 2,000-pound bags of salt into our mixing vat to make salt water.
These daily tasks didn't change much while the building was closed; as Lead Life Support Engineer Morgan Denney put it, "The needs of the animals and the life support systems they live in stay pretty much constant no matter what is happening in the world."
The life support team was divided so that only half of the staff was on-site each day. The resulting increase in workload for each engineer was the biggest challenge that they faced, according to Morgan—although it "wasn't anything we couldn't handle," and presented a positive opportunity to improve communications on the team.
A lack of guests doesn't mean a lack of guest services at the Aquarium. According to Guest Services Manager Will Greene, this team stayed busy during the shutdown as they received and answered calls and emails from guests, and continued to maintain the grounds and building.
"The hardest part was working without the guests," he said. "We are always forward facing so it's a drastic change to work a whole day and not have all the personal interactions that we are used to having. The good thing is that we took this time to fine-tune our training and service standards."
Despite all of the challenges, Will says that the shutdown brought out the best in Aquarium employees.
"Everyone that I have come across at the Aquarium has been supportive and willing to do things that aren't a part of their usual day-to-day job," he said. "It's been a great example of people rising to the moment."
Animal Care and Rescue Center
Staff at the National Aquarium's Animal Care and Rescue Center, just like in the Aquarium's main building, never wavered in the care of the animals.
It's here where new animals come for a quarantine period before making their way to the main National Aquarium building. Because of the pandemic, animal acquisitions and moves were canceled.
"The spring and summer months at ACRC are generally a busy time receiving lots of animals to quarantine for eventual move to exhibit," explained Ashleigh Clews, curator at the Animal Care and Rescue Center. "Usually the building is full of life by now! While staff greatly miss this part of the job, they have accepted this new reality and know that things will eventually return to normal."
Until then, Ashleigh said, staff at the ACRC is making the most of the situation.
"Many have found the positives in the downtime, like getting to focus more on individual animals and projects, and also reflecting on the importance of zoos and aquariums in our world and the commitment of all of those who work to support our critically important missions," she explained.