Working as closely with wildlife as we do is impossible without great trust and affinity between animals and their carers. For some of the aquarists at the Two Oceans Aquarium, true bonds and lifelong friendships have been built with special animals in their care - we asked our team about their exceptional human-animal relationships.

Michelle and Ayoba the African penguin

Aquarist Michelle Kirshenbaum and African penguin Ayoba have one of the Aquarium's most adorable long-term relationships, recently featured on M-Net's The Wild Ones.

Michelle: Ayoba hatched at the Aquarium, to mom Alan and dad Neptune. He was then taken to SANCCOB to grow and learn how to accept hand feeding. When he came back he, somehow, imprinted* on me. There used to be quite a few frog exhibits near to the Penguin Exhibit, which I took care of, and one day he just imprinted on me and decided that I'm his person and he'd love me forever.

This July he'll be turning eight, making this an eight-year relationship - the longest relationship I've had other than my past marriage! This year Ayoba finally found a penguin mate - Gaia. Now the pressure's off me, I no longer have to give him the egg that I think he's been waiting for me to lay for the last eight years.

Ayrton and Harry the mole snake

The Aquarium's venerable mole snake, Harry, has long been under the care of Aquarist Ayrton King...

Ayrton: When I first started working at the Aquarium, I was petrified of snakes - which makes this quite a fun story, because I didn't realise I'd be given the job of looking after a snake! When I knew I was going to have to work with Harry every day, I knew I was going to have to build up my confidence. I remember the very first time I had to change his water: I made sure he was on the very far side of the exhibit before I would even open it.

Photo by Ayrton King.

Now I feel like I've built up quite a special relationship with him, which is amazing because he's helped me overcome my fear of snakes. Now we are very comfortable with each other. Sometimes in winter it gets quite cold in the Aquarium, so I'll walk around with him under my jacket - he likes that.

Talitha and Sandy the green turtle

Sandy is a green sea turtle under the care of Conservation Coordinator Talitha Noble. Their relationship goes back to Sandy's rescue in 2016...

Talitha: Sandy arrived at the Aquarium back in October 2016, at a time when I was dealing with a difficult part of my life. I arrived at work that Monday and there was this turtle - she looked like she was dead, with these incredible gashes in her shell that must have been the most painful thing she's ever experienced. I just had this immediate thought of, "How on Earth can I be complaining about my situation when this turtle is being so resilient and is still alive after having suffered so incredibly?"

It really hit home with Sandy. You could see every laboured breath; she was on stage six pain medication - there came a time when the vet considered euthanising her. But Sandy was the definition of a rock. Every day just taking it one bite at a time and not giving up. I took such inspiration from that. Even thinking back on that now makes me quite emotional.

Photo by Jana Marnewick.

Caring for her required daily patience - cleaning her wounds, gently speaking to her, feeding her, changing her water. This really built a solid bond between us. Eventually, she was strong enough to move outside to a porta-pool, and in March last year she moved into the I&J Ocean Exhibit. It's been so astounding to watch her constant healing.

I really love her personality, some people find her a bit aggressive, but I just think that she's so spunky and so full of life - she's exactly what a turtle is meant to be. That resilience allowed her to survive and it is the same attitude she shows now in her daily life. From the way she enjoys food or approaches a diver for a tickle, she doesn't do anything half-heartedly. I really identify with her all or nothing attitude!

It's really lovely to have special moments when I can see on her face that she really is focussed on me when I give her a soft tickle under her chin or sing her her "Sandy Baby" song. We have our moments of high energy and we also have our moments of calm. I can honestly say that I love her as though she were part of my family - that's why I got a tattoo of her. She is a constant source of inspiration for me, and even now when things get rough I can just look at my arm and see her curious little head looking up at me and, with her shell like a Harry Potter scar, her adorable overbite, I'm just filled with love and can do anything. I just well up with love when I think about her and her story. This has definitely been one of the most special relationships of my life.

Simon and Larry the yellowbelly rockcod

Diver Simon Leigh spends a lot of time in the I&J Ocean Exhibit, feeding animals, cleaning their homes, checking on their health. But Simon has built quite the relationship with one fishy friend...

Simon: Larry is a yellowbelly rockcod, the one with the notch missing from his tail in the I&J Ocean Exhibit. He's a very friendly rockcod and he and I have developed a little bit of a relationship - I've been diving with him for over two years now, but it is only in the last three or four months that he's learned to trust me.

Photo by Simon Leigh.

When he approaches me, or I go up to him, I'll take my regulator out of my mouth and either make a very thin stream of bubbles with my lips or out of the regulator and he comes and sits right over the bubbles. He'll completely open up his gills and he lets the bubbles flow over his gills and out his mouth. For some reason he seems to like the feeling of it - I'm not too sure what he gets out of it. Perhaps it's a headrush from the extra oxygen, or it just tickles or it is cleaning his gills somehow.

You'll now see that he likes to hang around over divers and tries to get into their bubble stream. If you're lucky enough to engage with him one day, feel free to take your regulator out and offer him a few bubbles. He's  such a friendly fish to have around!

Leigh and Xilo the gulley shark

Moving through the ranks of volunteer, guide and eventually aquarist, Leigh de Necker tells us about the special bond that grew between her and Xilo over the years...

Photo by Devon Bowen/Two Oceans Aquarium.

Leigh: I got to know Xilo very briefly when I worked as a floor guide - I noticed her every day when I walked past her and I'd often stop to admire her. Then, when I got an aquarist position at the Aquarium, I got the opportunity to take charge of her exhibit.

Since then I've been working hands-on with her, getting to know her better. I've realised that she's really got quite a character on her! I've target trained her, so she comes right up to me and feeds straight from my hand which is really exciting and she gets incredibly excited about it too. She only gets fed three times a week, but I live for it because her reaction is so similar to mine at a buffet! She's really special to feed. Once I've given her a piece of fish I always get the opportunity to give her a little tickle on her nose. To do that kind of thing with a shark is really quite special.

Photo by Devon Bowen/Two Oceans Aquarium.

Shortly after I was put in charge of the exhibit, I noticed that one day she was just lying flat on the sand and not swimming, which I found quite concerning - she's always swimming, a real busybody. Turns out she had some kind of parasitic worm feeding off her gills and, according to our veterinary staff, she may have died if I hadn't spotted her like that. She was quite critical for a while, and she is still undergoing treatment, but she's doing a lot better. It really felt like I was visiting my child in hospital when she was in quarantine, it was quite tough.

She's a quirky shark. There are particular parts of a squid that she prefers. Also, with the hake, she really likes the tail bit more than the medallions. I like to spoil her and prepare her food myself so I know she gets the pieces that she likes.

Shanet and Miss Harold Custard the rockhopper

Aquarist/Penguin Keeper Shanet Rutgers has a special bond with rockhopper penguin Miss Harold Custard, only recently replaced as the "baby" of the Penguin Exhibit.

Photo by Devon Bowen/Two Oceans Aquarium.

Shanet: Miss Harold Custard is a very special penguin. She arrived at the Aquarium in 2016, and from the get-go I was the person caring for her when she was introduced to the rockhopper colony, making sure that she was okay, making sure that the other birds didn't get aggressive with her. Every time I walked into their exhibit, she was the first bird I would attend to. I would pick her up and give her a hug because that is what she was used to - she was hand-reared at SANCCOB.

I call her my Nunu, my sweet one, because in the morning when I go into the exhibit and say "Morning birds!", she's always the first bird to make a noise. Even now that she is starting a relationship with Bubbles, she will see me and still come running over. I'm one of the only people that she will allow to interact with her - I can pick her up, I can hug her, I can kiss her, her beak can touch my face and she won't bite me.

Every time I sit nearby she will gallop over to me to hop onto my lap. Or, if I'm marking my checklist while one of the volunteers is feeding, she will stand next to me and watch. If I put the clipboard down she will try to steal my pen or the piece of paper. I've got many penguins under my care, but only Miss Harold Custard is my Nunu.

*Filial imprinting is a type of learning behaviour shown by young animals where they rapidly adopt the behaviours of another animal, such as ducklings following their mother around. Penguins do not have a strong imprinting instinct, so although Ayoba has learned the confidence and strut of a human, he is still very much a penguin.

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