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Aquarium's associate curator always ready to dive into work

TAMPA

Sharks can never be pets, so don't call Eric Hovland the shark whisperer.

Do, however, call the associate curator of the Florida Aquarium all of the following: shark advocate, myth buster and dive talk show host.

"I speak on their behalf," said Hovland, defender of the "much misunderstood and maligned" shark to 650,000 visitors a year, especially during media frenzies.

"I get that if it bleeds, it leads," said Hovland, "but one person gets bit and it turns into an epidemic of bad spin."

Calling sharks man-eaters, he says, equates to saying buses are fatal. "Shark attacks are exceptionally rare, less than 100 a year worldwide."

And the fact that they can smell one drop of blood 3 miles away?

"Just because you can smell a pizza doesn't mean you're going to beat up the pizza guy," Hovland said.

And don't get him started on people who have told him that Fidel Castro deploys sharks from Cuban waters to target tasty Americans.

The Wisconsin native idolized Jacques Cousteau and remembers his father reading National Geographic to him back in kindergarten. Now 47, he has gone nose to nose — and jaws to Jaws — with sharks in the Caribbean, the Maldives, in aquarium tanks. "Never received more than a passing glance."

Sometimes, hosting demonstrations from inside the half-million gallon coral reef gallery, Hovland must curb his enthusiasm for the ocean ecosystem.

"I tend to talk with my hands,'' he said. "Early on, I made sweeping gestures and slapped a 7-foot sand tiger shark in her open mouth. My right hand felt something pointy. Her teeth."

Not retaliating, "is a testament to their good natures," he adds, noting he pushed to allow certified scuba divers to enter the exhibit without being encased in cages. According to Hovland, Tampa's is the first aquarium in the country to do so.

Hovland joined the aquarium staff before it opened in November 1994. Back then, the tanks were empty, the towering mangroves knee-high and the wetlands exhibition unpopulated.

"My first assignment was to go to the Keys and start diving," said Hovland, who has since trained with the technical dive team, which descends to depths of 300 feet and deeper. Almost 90 percent of the aquarium's 20,000 sea creatures were collected by hand from the wild.

What the staff didn't catch or swap with other aquariums "like Seattle's ratfish for my moon jellies," he says) was likely bred right there, including sea horses, otters, ducks, herons, snakes and thousands of jelly fish.

The marine biologist's pride in his conservation work is bigger than a whale shark, biggest of the species.

Indeed, Hovland, who is single, is among the first to arrive each morning, sometimes on unicycle from his Palma Ceia home.

Not an errant duck, meandering hermit crab or droopy-eyed shark escapes his gaze as he makes his daily rounds. He greets Lexie the brown pelican, waves to the leafy sea dragons, stares at the strange slipper lobster. His pedometer easily records 10 miles a day inside the aquarium.

"I feel like Ranger Rick," said Hovland, his handlebar moustache framing a grin.

Three times a week he serves the "catch of the day" — squid, mackerel, tuna and vitamins — to a dozen sharks.

And then he observes.

"Sounds burdening, right? To sit in front of a big, glorious tank every day." Watching for behavior changes is critical with predator and prey in the same system.

Hovland can't think of any task he'd turn down. He has driven to New York in the middle of winter to pick up shark pups and to New Orleans to bring back white alligators. One Saturday morning, he drove a sedated whitetip reef shark in a 1,000-gallon tank to North Tampa for an MRI.

And then there was the time he collected that roughtail stingray in Port St. Lucie in a nuclear power plant reservoir.

"It was 10 feet long, 350 pounds, with spikes like a rose bush and 9-inch barbs."

Wrangling him into a net wasn't happening, so Hovland dived in and reached for the tail, holding on for dear life.

Gloves were an afterthought. "More adrenaline than smarts," he says.

"I grabbed hold with all my strength, then a colleague grabbed onto me and we cruised until he eventually tired out."

His hands were sliced to ribbons, but Hovland's singular thought?

"I don't pay them enough to let me do this."

About this series

Our community revolves around a diversity of jobs, some more unusual than others. Throughout the summer, we'll introduce readers to a variety of creative, hardworking people who have made interesting, some might say quirky, career choices. Suggestions welcome; email ascherzer@tampabay.com or call (813) 226-3332.

Aquarium's associate curator always ready to dive into work 07/19/12 [Last modified: Thursday, July 19, 2012 4:30am]
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