Swimming with sharks, diving to scrub fake coral and wading knee deep to feed stingrays. How cool a job is that?
And those are just a few reasons employees work at the Florida Aquarium.
About two-thirds of the 159-person staff live a dream of holding a steady, paying job that uses their wildlife or marine biology degrees. In addition to caring for sea creatures from dolphins down to plankton, they're helping research species about which not much is known. And they have a podium to deliver their message of marine conservation to about 700,000 visitors a year.
"This is not like work," said Maryssa Hills, 25, who helps supervise instructors and a cadre of 250 volunteers. "No two days are the same."
Associate curator Kristen Aanerud not only feeds a 35-pound octopus named Hector, but she keeps him active and alert with dog pull toys and by hiding his food in screw-top bottles that Hector quickly figures out how to open.
One of 25 paid divers on staff, Lauren Freeman learned deep dive skills 90 feet down in an aquarium-sponsored archaeological excavation.
She doesn't miss her job at a mortgage brokerage.
"This is not corporate," she said, warming up after two hours of answering kids' questions over a microphone from the aquarium's million-gallon fishbowl.
Adam Duff, a 32-year old wildlife biologist from Idaho, shops for kid toys to engage a team of eight South African penguins. But he goofed when he gave them a penguin plush puppet.
"I looked in on a camera monitor and spotted this black and white form floating belly up in still water," he said. "I scrambled in thinking we had a real penguin medical emergency."
The aquarium also keeps its science-savvy staff intrigued by finding grants for outside jobs like mapping the bottom of Tampa Bay. Its divers solved the legend of a 120-foot Civil War warship by finding the wreckage sunk in the Hillsborough River near Blake High School. A National Geographic Society grant paid to exhume from a deep spring near North Port wood fragments that may confirm a civilization more than 10,000 years old.
After opening 16 years ago, the $90 million aquarium ran into financial trouble because it failed to meet overly rosy attendance and admission projections.
The city of Tampa was forced to take over the debt payments. But the $15.1 million-a-year operation is still run by a nonprofit foundation that last year whittled what once was a $1.5 million tax-financed operating subsidy to $400,000.
Staff members are employed by the foundation, which provides a health care plan, contributions to a retirement investment plan and merit raises.
The aquarium froze wages to endure the recession, but avoided layoffs. Still, a handful of employees who got a 2 percent cost of living adjustment in 2010 donated it back to the aquarium.
Performance raises are tied to individual goals set with managers. Goals are split between ways to advance the aquarium's educational mission and to improve aquarium finances.
Thom Stork, a former Busch Gardens and SeaWorld executive recruited to run the place, is pleased that several money-making ideas bubbled up from the staff: charging for backstage tours, installing a kids splash zone and staging penguin parades.
That's a departure from the serious-minded ecology buffs who launched the aquarium in 1995. They banned dolphins, sharks and theme park tactics to draw crowds. They even forbade publicly uttering the staff's names of the animals in fear that would "humanize" nature.
But Stork, who kneads so much Silly Putty in one hand as a stress reliever that he buys 5-pound cartons, encourages fun.
Volunteers arrive at 5 a.m. to cook regularly scheduled staff breakfasts. Most holidays merit a staff party. Ice cream socials to honor volunteers — the oldest diver is 82, the oldest docent 96 — are frequent.
Mark Albright can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8252.