As a Georgia Sea Grant marine education intern, I divide my time between teaching classes about Georgia’s coastal ecology and natural history to visiting school groups and serving as the aquarium assistant. My role as an aquarium assistant entails ensuring the health and well-being of all our aquatic residents.

My usual tasks involve helping prepare food, cleaning protein skimmers, and scrubbing tanks. It’s not glamorous, but it’s fun. I came in one Monday morning expecting to go through my usual routine, but soon found out that the day had much more in store than cleaning and food prep.

I checked in with our curators, Devin Dumont and Lisa Olenderski, and they explained that it was time to release our three largest red drum. At nearly three feet long, the drum had grown too big for their home in our biggest display tank. We don’t release fish often, so I immediately perked up.

When preparing to release fish as large as a red drum there are many aspects that need to be considered. Devin and Lisa decided the easiest way to release the fish would be to drive them in the aquarium van to the boat ramp at Priest Landing on Skidaway Island. We loaded two large plastic tubs in the back of the van and filled them with saltwater. This turned out to be the easy part.

Next, we had to remove the red drum from the tank, which is more difficult than it sounds.

Isabella Espinoza stands inside of the partially drained red drum tank.

We drained the 1,600-gallon tank until there was roughly two feet of water left before catching the drum, one by one, and quickly transporting them to the van. This step required teamwork. Dumont, Olenderski, one of our long-time volunteers, Ed Stenson, and I all participated in the process.

Once the fish were safely in the van, we piled in and headed to Priest Landing. When we arrived at the release site, we used a net to gently remove one fish at a time and walk them out to the Wilmington River. In knee-deep water, we lowered the net and watched them slowly swim away. The release was done at high tide, so the drum were able to ride the current back out to the open ocean.

In the middle of the red drum release, Dumont received a call from a crew member on the R/V Savannah, Skidaway Institute of Oceanography’s research vessel. They had caught an octopus while pulling up traps for a NOAA Fisheries survey. Octopuses are notoriously difficult to catch, so as soon as we finished the red drum release, we rushed back to the aquarium to prepare for the octopus.

Octopuses are known to be escape artists so the new arrival needed to be placed in a special tank that has AstroTurf placed around the top parameter. The texture seems to dissuade octopuses from crawling out of their tank. Unfortunately, the tank was filled with a bunch of smaller fish that could easily become a snack if they shared a tank with the octopus. We had to drain the tank to make it easier to catch the fish so we could remove them and transfer them to more suitable tanks. When the octopus arrived, we gently released it into the tank and it immediately found a nice hiding spot under one of the rock ledges.

The last task of the day required cleaning the old red drum tank and prepping it for new residents. Two black sea bass, a gag grouper, and two snook now occupy the tank.

Throughout the week, I helped monitor the animals to make sure they were settling into their new habitats. All seemed to be comfortable in their new home, which was reaffirmed by the fact that they continued to eat normally during routine feedings. The octopus even starting showing interest in the enrichment toys that were placed in the tanks by Dumont and Olenderski.

If this series of events seems like a lot to follow, that’s because it is! I didn’t even mention the two alligators we had to move that week because they had also outgrown their tank. Ensuring that every animal in the aquarium has a suitable home with appropriate tank-mates requires extensive planning and preparation on the part of the curators.

Working as a Georgia Sea Grant Marine Education Intern has helped me grow as an informal science educator, and it has taught me the joys and complexities that come with running an aquarium. Before this internship, I never saw myself working at an aquarium; now, it’s my dream job.