Two Oceans Aquarium Aquarist Simon Leigh is only 26 years old, and yet he’s been with the Aquarium, in one role or another, for nigh on 10 years now. Simon is fascinated by animal behaviour, especially turtle behaviour, and he works very closely with our resident rescue turtles, Bob the green turtle and Yoshi the loggerhead turtle, in the I&J Ocean Exhibit.
Recently, Simon was featured on the Expresso Show’s "Labour of Love" insert, where he talks about turtle behaviour, and why his is one of the best jobs in the world. Check it out below:
As you’ll see in the above insert, Simon spends a lot of time in the I&J Ocean Exhibit, and as such he has grown close to the animals there and is learning a lot about animal behaviour in general, and turtle behaviour specifically.
In case you haven’t heard about Bob, his (or her) story is truly remarkable. Bob was brought to our turtle rehabilitation facility more than two years ago, in very bad shape. Bob had extreme injuries, wouldn’t or couldn’t eat, couldn’t control his buoyancy and, finally, pooped out a bunch of plastic bags and balloons. Bob nearly died, but our passionate staff went beyond the call of duty to bring this loveable turtle back from the brink of death.
Bob is a sub-adult green sea turtle but we don’t know what sex it is yet, because this only becomes clear later in a turtle’s life. So for now, we are referring to Bob as a “he”, but Bob may well be a “she”! Either way, Bob is awesome.
And so that’s why Bob is becoming a bit of a celebrity – an ambassador for his species, but also a poignant reminder of the dreadful impact that plastic pollution has on the ocean’s amazing animals.
Everyone who’s anyone loves meeting Bob, and Simon is one of the people at the Aquarium who has formed a particularly close relationship with this turtle. We sat down with Simon for a few minutes to get the low-down on his animal behaviour work the Aquarium.
If there’s one thing you hope people will learn from Bob’s story, what would it be?
Just respect. It comes down to respecting the lives on the planet: it’s not fair for us to destroy other living creatures’ space and homes, it’s not fair on them that we make the choice to destroy their lives.
When did you start getting to know Bob well?
I really started working with Bob once he started living in the I&J Ocean Exhibit. Once he started diving a little more I could work on hand signals and playing with him, and I basically just fell in love with the guy. Whether it’s a he or she, we’re not too sure, but it’s the most amazing turtle I’ve ever worked with.
Why do you say that?
It’s his personality. Bob is the friendliest turtle I’ve ever encountered. He’s a sucker for attention! All he wants to do is to be scratched and played with and to get attention. When I’m cleaning the exhibit windows he’ll follow me around, he’ll nibble at my hoses just to get attention. He’ll turn around to get into “scratch position” and even give a little bum wiggle.
Below: Bob gets a scratch from Simon
How has Bob influenced your animal behaviour work?
I love animal behaviour; I started with fish but I’m starting to realise that I am fascinated by behaviour in general, even human behaviour! I can watch people interact for ages. It’s been quite a learning process, working with the turtles - not just Bob, but Yoshi [our resident loggerhead turtle, famous in her own right] too. I’m taking lessons from the behavioural work that I do with my cats at home, and applying it to these animals.
When working with animals it’s a whole different story, because there’s no verbal communication - there’s no way I can ask the turtle if it’s happy or not. All I can do is read the body language and the way the animal is moving, the way it’s responding to touch, where I touch, and how I touch. It’s amazing because even though you have no vocal communication with this animal, you are in a moment of understanding that you’re both there for mutual benefit. I enjoy giving this attention, and Bob clearly enjoys sitting there and receiving the attention, because he does his wiggle and he doesn’t swim away.
It’s the most fantastic energy because there’s no hidden agenda.
It sounds like you’re describing trust, honesty and transparency…
Absolutely. With an animal, you build up trust, they learn to recognise hand signals … So now Bob knows that when I call him, he’s going to get attention, and that’s a trust thing, so he knows he can trust to come down to me and I’m not going to manhandle or endanger him. He’s just going to be able to come down and get what he wants, which is a good scratch.
Now I’m enjoying every interaction with every animal so much more. The turtles have taught me so much in terms of animal behaviour, how to read an animal, and I’m starting to transfer that over to the fish, to the rays.
This week I went diving with the rays again and I started working slightly differently. I put my hands under the sand before coming up to them, and now the bigger short-tail stingrays will sit on top of my hands, then waft the sand off my hands and nibble my fingers. I’ll bury my hands under the sand again and they’ll waft the sand off again. Then I give them a belly rub and they actually hunker down and squeeze right onto my hands.
That’s amazing, because rays can be quite skittish!
They can be! But it depends how you work with an animal. You have to make sure that you minimise negative interactions. If you have a bad interaction, step back and leave for the time being, because if you keep pushing it’s just going to reinforce the bad interaction. It will take that much longer to build up the trust again. As I said, I've learnt a lot from my interactions with my cats at home in terms of the way I touch an animal, the way I can feel out an animal’s body, gently, slowly… Eventually I started working in the massage element.
A massage for turtles?
That came from sitting with Yoshi one day while I was siphoning the I&J Ocean Exhibit. With turtles it’s usually very easy to tell when they don’t want to be touched, they’ll either bat you away with the fins or they’ll wipe at their belly if you’re touching there, and if you’re touching them on the neck they’ll actually gape and turn to the side as if to get you off.
So one day I was giving Yoshi a little tickle on the left side of her neck, just this light little scratch. On this day she was OK with me doing that, and she even opened up a bit and pushed harder into my hand. So I felt a little bit deeper into her neck, going gently as much as she’d allow me under her chin, until I found this little pea-sized knot on the base of her jaw. I pushed it and her whole head and shoulders relaxed, she just went “whoomph” and relaxed, and from there I could work down into the shoulders, right under the shoulder blades. She stayed and her whole head went wobbly.
That was a really big turning point for me, it opened up a whole new door to the way that I could work with an animal and how I could read animal behaviour. And as I said, reading body language, it’s that form of communication when you’re working with an animal that is so special that although you don’t have that verbal communication, you are still able to understand each other enough to have this absolutely great energy.
It’s this packet of energy that feeds the soul: when you are able to cross a language barrier with an animal.
Bearing in mind that we’re not in the business of training animals to do tricks for people’s entertainment, what is it that you think you bring to these animals’ lives?
It’s very hard to go about answering this question without anthropomorphising an animal, but this is what I believe: An animal is a living thing, and if it is conscious, if it’s aware of its own self – which I believe animals are, because they want to survive – then they must have some conscious understanding of whether they are happy or not. That could be happiness in the sense that we know it, or just in terms of stress, health or hunger.
But you’ll find with intelligent animals, like turtles, that they can become bored, and when they become bored, they become irritable and pesky. For example, I know that when Yoshi starts to bite things and her fellow animals in the exhibit, she is likely bored. Since I started working with her a little bit more and making a set time every day to go down and play with her and Bob, I feel that there are fewer incidents of biting and irritation now. I’m providing enrichment to the turtles.
And exercise too, right?
Yes, during feeding time we have two targets at opposite ends of the exhibit, and we’re getting Yoshi to move between us so she gets to swim a little bit more. We also have to control her diet: we keep her on 1.5kg of food per day, otherwise she gets a little fat!
You can catch Simon most days diving in the I&J Ocean Exhibit around feeding time at 12h00. Thereafter he'll clean the exhibit's large acrylic window, then sit and play with the turtles. Then he gets out of the exhibit, changes out of his wetsuit and goes downstairs for the 2pm drop-feed presentation.
An Aquarium GoPro adventure
A couple of years ago, Simon – who is a former De Beers Marine Young Biologist – decided to put a video together "to try to express the amount of fun and happiness that my job brings me – whether it be working at one of the top aquariums in the world, in one of the most amazing cities in the world, or the amazing staff and volunteers that make the Two Oceans Aquarium the success that it is”. We hope you enjoy this video as much as we do.