A young aquarist loves the eerie grace of the spotted eagle ray.
The piece first appeared in The Sudbury Town Crier.
When Lincoln-Sudbury graduate Jill Reeves worked as an intern at the Sea Base and Caribbean Coral Reef Aquarium at Disney World a few years ago, she got to be good friends with a spotted eagle ray. She loved the beauty of the fish’s ebony back speckled with light rings, and the eerie grace of its rangy, flat pectoral fins rippling through the water. She quickly discovered just how smart a creature it is, too. “It was really unexpected,” she recalls, that the rascally fish would tease her, and other novice caretakers. Every day, Reeves donned a wet suit and scuba equipment to swim with the ray and the 6,000 other inhabitants of the 5.7 million gallon salt water tank. At feeding time, the ray was required to earn his dinner by touching his nose to a red cone that Reeves held in her hand. But during her first days in the tank, the fish would ignore the cone completely and gently bump her, or nose her equipment. “He would do anything,” she said “to try to make you give him food without doing what was required.”
Reeves’ long-time love of fish, along with her experiences at Disney, led her to a career as an aquarist.
As a student at Lincoln-Sudbury, she applied only to colleges with marine biology curricula. The highlight of her studies at Northeastern University was a year-long “Three Seas” program. She spent three months at the University’s Marine Science Center in Nahant studying rocky intertidal habitats, then three months in Tahiti examining coral reef communities and fish biology, and a final three months at Catalina Island in California learning about kelp forests.
As a newly-minted college graduate, Reeves debated pursuing a career in research or teaching, the conventional routes for marine biologists. The internship at Disney helped her decide she’d rather work in an aquarium, caring for animals. Finding an entry level job, however, was not so easy. But after another internship working with dolphins and sea lions for the Navy in San Diego, Reeves landed a position as an assistant aquarist for a city-run facility in Albuquerque. One of the highlights of her year there was helping with the birth of six shark pups.
Last May, Reeves was appointed to a position as a Fresh Water Aquarist at the Mystic Aquarium in Connecticut. Rays are still her favorite aquarium animal, and she cares for one juvenile and three adult fresh water rays. In all, Reeves is responsible for thirteen tanks that house fish from the Amazon Rain Forest and Lake Malawi in Africa, as well as a couple of toads, a poisonous frog, and a snapping turtle. She makes twice daily rounds to all her tanks, checking for proper temperature, water chemistry, and lighting. Plus, she watches over a maze of backroom pumps and filters.
It’s when she does her mid-day feeding that she really gets acquainted with her animals. She knows, for example, that one particular striped head stander will eat only mosquito larvae, “he will spit out every other food,” she laughs. She’s nick-named the poisonous milk frog “Skim,” and declares her love for the color of the sticky pads on his hand and feet. And she’s not intimidated by the tank of piranhas. “When we get in there to scrub it,” she says, “they swim to the other side of the wall, they’re terrified. They only attack things in distress.”
Seven years of immersing herself in marine habitats, fish anatomy, and creature behaviors hasn’t dampened her enthusiasm; she still loves fish. “I like to view them, I like to talk to them, and I like to work with them,” she maintains, “I love them in all forms.”