The piles of stones that appear in the Gentoo penguins exhibit each spring don’t look like much to the untrained eye. But believe it or not, they’re the perfect p-p-p-pick-up joint for penguins at The Deep, Hull’s award-winning aquarium.
“That’s Nessie,” says Helena Robinson, an aquarist and one of The Deep’s five-strong team of penguin keepers. She points at a Gentoo penguin who is meticulously searching for the perfect pebble to present to her potential partner, Shackleton. Discarding dozens of identical stones, she eventually finds the one. Shackleton seems to approve, and it’s added to the pile.
“When our penguin couples show signs of nesting, they bulk up for breeding season and begin to present each other with stones,” reveals Helena. “They then gather the stones to build nests where, hopefully, they will later lay eggs.”
Meanwhile, Attenborough and Lizzie – the 2016 chicks named after Sir David and HRH Queen Elizabeth who both turned 90 in the year they were born – come up to the exhibit glass to watch us, watching them.
“Attenborough and Lizzie are quite nosy,” says Helena. “They were born here at The Deep, so they’re very confident and inquisitive. They’re real characters.”
For penguin keepers like Helena and her colleagues, a typical day starts behind the scenes at 8.30am, 90 minutes before The Deep welcomes its first visitors through the doors.
Most of that time is spent cleaning up penguin poo.
“We start with a really big clean and a visual check of each animal and exhibit,” she says. “They poo a lot! It’s a never-ending job. The only thing that’s messier is when they’re moulting as well.”
After the big clean, visitors can watch Nessie, Shackleton, Attenborough, Lizzie and the rest of the penguin posse being hand-fed a mixture of capelin, sprats and herring. This takes place twice a day at 11.30am and 3.30pm. In between, they’re monitored, coaxed on to weighing scales and fed krill or river shrimp.
Of course, there’s much more to aquarist duties at The Deep than looking after the animals in your specialist section. It is home to around 5,000 animals, 130 individual habitats and has 36 filtration systems to manage. Everyone has to muck in, and muck out.
Other duties include water analysis, food prep (every creature at The Deep gets human-grade food to eat, by the way), pump and filtration maintenance, record keeping, exhibit-building, research, breeding, vital conservation work and – everyone’s favourite – diving.
Let’s face it, not many jobs can offer the thrill of diving with sharks and rays to hand-feed them – and you can watch the feeding dives take place every Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
“The first time you dive in the Endless Oceans exhibit with the sharks and the rays is nerve-racking,” admits Helena, who first worked as a guide, then volunteered and eventually trained to become an aquarist. “I actually learned to dive as part of this job. I’d never dived before, so I did my open water qualification and loved it.
“The reality is not that glamorous though. Most of the time we’re under water, we’re cleaning – we do daily dives scrubbing algae off the inside of the main displays – as well as giving the animals a visual health check.
“We do a lot of jobs that people don’t expect – we’ve carved the rock walls in the lagoon, painted displays and put the corals in. We also look after any new animals coming into the quarantine area.
“It requires a huge amount of elbow grease, and you’re always on call,” say Helena, returning to the ever-growing penguin nests. “But you’re making a difference. It’s all worth it.”