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The Expert


Heather Johnson, 27, Aquarist, National Aquarium in Baltimore

Sunday, February 27, 2005; Page M03

THE LITTLE MERMAID: When I was a sophomore in college, Ripley's Aquarium opened in my town, Myrtle Beach, S.C. I started as a tour guide -- educating the general public about marine science, the exhibits and local wildlife -- and eventually became a show scuba diver. Divers go into the tank with the sharks and stingrays so that visitors can see that the animals really have little to no interest in humans. The first time I took part in a dive, the adrenaline was definitely pumping. Then, like any job, it just became routine.

SHARK TALE: I've worked at three aquariums, but one of the most heart-pounding experiences was at Ripley's. We were doing late night repairs on one of the tanks and, though we didn't realize it, the animals were getting a little stressed. A tool was accidentally dropped, making a loud noise and then, all of the sudden, I heard a "snap!" right above me. A sand tiger shark, which is generally very slow moving, was passing quickly just inches from my head -- the snap was the sound of his tail. We're talking about a large animal -- about 200 to 300 pounds -- so I quickly got out of the tank. This experience taught us a valuable lesson about the animal's temperament. Now, I always listen for that snap.

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HOLY MACKEREL: The best time to visit the National Aquarium in Baltimore, where I work now, is between 10:30 a.m. and 11:30 a.m., when there are fewer people. We typically feed the sharks twice a week -- since they aren't actively hunting, they aren't expending as much energy as they would in the wild. They get fish from the local market -- mackerel, flounder, bluefish, croaker -- in amounts based on age and activity level. The adult sand tiger sharks get 2 percent of their body weight, for example, while the juvenile sandbar sharks receive 7 percent. Because we target the animals this way, we can't simply throw the food into the water. Instead, a fish is speared onto a long two-prong pole and lowered into the water when the right animal swims by.

UNDER THE SEA: Our volunteer dive program lets people feed the animals (except the sharks) and clean the exhibits. It's a pretty coveted position -- some divers have been with us since we opened in 1981; one even travels from Georgia once a month. We only accept about 20 new people each year. To make it into the program, you have to pass a written test, a swimming test, an underwater object retrieval test and an interview. You can go to our Web site at www.aqua.org to learn more.

As told to Karen Hart

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