“Find something you love to do and you’ll never have to work a day in your life ” – Harvey Mackay

I’m lucky, very lucky! I’ve done some things as part of my job which most people will only dream about.

In 1995 [on 24 October] I joined the Two Oceans Aquarium as a naïve youngster with very little work experience. I was ignorant about the oceans, my limited experience of them being rock pools on the KwaZulu-Natal south coast, which I explored as a child. My fish knowledge was even less – when Sheryl Ozinsky (then Marketing Manager) and Professor Mike Bruton (then Head of Education) asked me about my interest in fish during my interview I could only tell them about my two goldfish, Etna and Vesuvius.

My introduction to marine invertebrates was on a guided walkabout in the company of the late Anne Robertson, one of the first volunteers – she showed me feather stars and strawberry anemones and somehow managed to convince me that these are animals and not plants!

Flamboyant strawberry anemones. Photo by Geoff Spiby

As I celebrate 20 years with this remarkable Aquarium, I recall some of my adventures. Eel collecting, copper hat diving and fishing off restricted coastline are just some of the highlights of my Aquarium story.

Eel collecting

In 1999, in preparation for the opening of our first temporary exhibit Fangs, I joined then Curator Dr Patrick Garratt and then Assistant Curator Simon Chater on a three-week eel-collecting trip to KwaZulu-Natal. We spent a week in Richards Bay fishing for pike conger eels – apparently these are among the most ferocious of eels and local fishermen have more than just a healthy respect for them. Much to our dismay we came away empty handed, but the experience itself was a fruitful one for me as I was in the presence of two very knowledgeable men. Not only did I learn to prepare traces for fishing; I was also able to witness first-hand the intricate procedure of cutting long slithery eels from a tangled line and releasing them unharmed back into the water. I also learned something of the workings of a large harbour, about astronomy and weather systems as well as the identification of a variety of birds.

The second stage of the trip was spent diving off the south coast of KZN. Every morning, just after sunrise, we would launch from the Umkomaas River and head out to sea. Our mission during this stage was to collect a variety of large moray eels, such as honeycombs, starrys and blackcheeks. Using a large transparent heavy-duty plastic bag and a bottle of anaesthetic, the eels were quickly and quietly collected and taken up to the surface where they were transferred into a large holding tank on the boat.

Pat and Simon bring the honeycomb moray eel to the surface
Photo by Dr Patrick Garratt

Two memories stand out for me from our dives: the first was snorkelling with a school of dolphins –I was stunned that I could actually hear them communicating with one another as they circled and looped below us.

The second memory was descending into the depths of Aliwal Shoal surrounded by ragged-tooth sharks. Initially I was calm, being familiar with the ragged-tooths in the I&J Predator Exhibit, but when I reminded myself that these were wild sharks I sped up my descent and stuck close to Pat and Simon.

Walking on the moon - underwater

On Sunday 17 October 1999, I became the first woman in South Africa to take the plunge in an aquarium wearing a 1944 vintage United States Navy Mark V hard-hat diving dress.

I was dressed into a twelve-bolt copper helmet, bulky canvas suit, brass and lead-weighted boots, lead weight-belt and knife. The boots alone weighed 10 kilograms and the total weight of the equipment was 90 kilograms! I could barely hold my head up let alone move due to the weight. The USN Mark V outfit was used by the US Navy from the early Twentieth Century until the 1970's.

I was lowered on a diving stage into the depths of the I&J Predator Exhibit where I got to ‘stroll’ among the ragged tooth sharks, turtles, a variety of rays and shoals of fishes. I reckon this experience was as close as one can get to walking on the moon. I literally felt like an astronaut, bouncing along the bottom of the exhibit. Having had this experience I could fully appreciate what the advent of SCUBA did for diving!

Photo courtesy Cape Argus

Koppie alleen

In 2006 I joined Curator Michael Farquhar, researcher Ken Hutchings, then Operations Manager Gerhard Beukes and Pat Garratt, on a fishing trip on the southern Cape coast near De Hoop Nature Reserve. We were given access to fish from inside the Denel testing site which is about 10km east of Arniston. I hoped and prayed that no testing would be done while we were there!

The aim was to collect baardman for display in the Ocean Basket Kelp Forest Exhibit and my role was to take photographs. But I also wanted in on the action so I was handed a fishing rod and the men patiently explained to me how to bait my hook and where to cast. I caught a beautiful silver kob which I proudly measured and tagged before returning it to the ocean.

Michael Farquhar and me with my catch. Photo by Dr Patrick Garratt

Some other highlights include:

Sunfish

This sunfish arrived within days of us opening the Aquarium. I had never seen anything like it in my life and neither had most of our staff or our visitors. An elderly woman insisted that the sunfish was a robot!

Photo courtesy Cape Argus

Snoek in the Ocean Basket Kelp Forest Exhibit

This was our second attempt at displaying snoek – the first batch were eaten by the sharks in the I&J Predator Exhibit. Most people are only familiar with snoek on their plates, but these animals have beautiful irridescent bodies which flash blue and green when the light hits them.

Photo by Roy Wigley, Sunday Weekend Argus  

Baby eagle rays

We arrived at work in February 1996 to discover that an eagle ray had given birth to six babies in the I&J Predator Exhibit (then known as the Open Ocean Exhibit). We moved them into the Ray Pool in the Atlantic Ocean Gallery so that they wouldn't be eaten by the sharks.

Photo by Hannes Thiart, Cape Argus 

Kelp forest dive

I started at the Aquarium as a non-diver but couldn't wait to get under the water and be amongst the kelp and fish. This dive with ex-employee Winnie Weber (top right) was one of many in the Aquarium exhibits and out at sea.

Photo by Sven Lennert 

Besides these adventures I have been fortunate to work alongside some of the most incredible people and have had much fun and laugher along the way. Thank you to all the animals and to the people, past and present, for being part of my Aquarium journey. The sky is the limit.

Crowned Planet Girl at one of our annual staff parties, I look to the skies with our outgoing CEO Dr Patrick Garratt
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