Celebrating our Aquarists

By Andrea Baltodano

This past September, we celebrated Birch Aquarium’s 25th anniversary “on the hill.” Today, we are celebrating two of our team members who have been with Birch Aquarium since before it was relocated on the hill. Meet Fernando Nosratpour and Leslee Matsushige, two of our aquarists who have been here for 25+ years, helped build the famous Kelp Tank, and are working everyday behind-the-scenes in taking care of the marine life at Birch Aquarium. Take a deeper look into the day the life of an aquarist:


Tell us about your very first year working at the aquarium.

Fernando: I started at the old Scripps Aquarium. I was really excited and nervous at the same time.  I didn’t want anything to go wrong or harm any animal. Lots of learning in that first year! When I started at the new Birch Aquarium at Scripps, a year before it opened to the public, I again was excited but this time to help put together many of the exhibits and to collect a wide variety of animals to fill our exhibits. It was a lot of work making for long days but very satisfying!

Leslee:  I started working at the aquarium 5 months before we opened the new Stephen Birch Aquarium Museum.  That is what it was called back in 1992.  The aquarium was a construction site then and it was such a great experience to create and build the exhibits for the opening of the aquarium.  I did not work with live fish for most of those 5 months since we focused on the life support and habitats for each of the exhibits.  We had two weeks to move all the fish when the old Scripps Aquarium closed, near Scripps Pier, to the new aquarium before we were opening.  It was such a busy time, we worked many hours up to the last minute before we opened to the public.  It was a very rewarding experience to see the completed project open to all our visitors!  After we opened, we still had much work to do to keep on improving our exhibits and moving into behind the scenes spaces.  It was like we moved into a new home and had to furnish it and live in it.

What inspired you to become involved in animal care?  

Fernando: I loved animals at a very young age and began keeping aquariums at home at the age of 10. I used to watch Jacque Cousteau on TV. Those shows peaked my interest in the oceans, marine life and possibly SCUBA diving one day. I kept aquariums at home for many years. During my college years I volunteered at the old Scripps Aquarium and that’s when I thought this could be the career for me.

Leslee:  When I was a child growing up in Hawaii,  I loved exploring the tidepools and learning about all the different creatures in the ocean.  The beach and the ocean were very fascinating to me!  I did not realize then that I would eventually end up studying marine biology in college.  When I learned that I could study it for a career, I was intrigued.  I could study and work with a huge diversity of those animals every day by working in an aquarium.  That curiosity still continues till today!

What’s a typical day like being an aquarist?  

Fernando: It’s different every day but there’s always the mandatory routine: checking the health of our animals, cleaning the exhibits, checking the life support systems, and feeding the animals.

Leslee:  First thing is to check on the animals to make sure they are healthy.  Then there is a lot of cleaning to make sure their habitat is clean.  Observation during feeding is important to see the behavior of the animal is normal.   Sometimes we have to dive into our larger exhibits to clean or even feed our animals.  There are many exhibits and animals we are responsible for so these duties take up most of our day.  We are responsible for the life support for our exhibits so we also do maintenance on the equipment.  On occasion we go out in the ocean to dive and collect animals for our local exhibits.  Other times we are involved in design and planning for new exhibits.  We also train and work with volunteers that help us with our aquarist duties.  We never know if any day will be a “typical” day because so many diverse things can happen with live animals, we have to be prepared to prioritize our duties according to each day’s happenings.  This keeps our jobs interesting, you never know what your day may be like.  We are always learning new things too.

Do you have any favorite animals? What about exhibits, and why?

Fernando: My favorite animals are the anemone fishes and their host anemones. The common clownfish (“Nemo”) was my first marine fish I kept at home. Anemone fish colors, behavior, and especially their relationship with sea anemones makes them really interesting. The sea anemones associated with anemone fishes are beautiful and complex at the same time. My favorite exhibits are the the live coral exhibits, kelp forest, and Leafy Sea Dragons. I think we’ve done a really good job of making these exhibits look as close to the natural environment as possible. The coral and kelp exhibits bring a piece of ocean to our visitors – maybe a place they’ve never seen in person or ever will. The Leafy Sea Dragons are just a spectacular fish. Every day I see them, no matter how many years, they still blow me away!

Leslee:  My favorites are the octopus, cuttlefish, because they are so fascinating and interact with us.  The spiny lumpsuckers because they are so cute! The kelp forest because it is so beautiful in the natural sunlight and seeing a large community exhibit and how they all interact is cool.  Seadragons because they are amazing and people love them!

What’s your favorite part of the job? What part is most unexpected?

Fernando: My favorite part of the job is planning and setting up a new exhibit.  I think what was most unexpected, are the opportunities I had to travel. I never imagined traveling to The Netherlands, Taiwan, Mexico (a number of times), and Curacao for work! I also had to chance to travel to a number of places throughout the United States including Hawaii and Monterey (for diving!). Traveling for conferences, workshops, and even to collect animals is just a cool thing to have in your job description!

Leslee: Most every animal in the aquarium has something unique and cool about them.  Being able to share this with all our guests is so rewarding and hopefully this will instill an appreciation to care for our oceans

What are you most proud of from your 25+ year career?

Fernando: I have a few… Being the first to breed and raise the White-Bonnet Anemone fish and tracking/recording the spawning of a staghorn coral for 5 years. Publishing my observations on both of these subjects added a little bit of knowledge to our field of work.I’m also proud of the contributions I made to making better, more natural looking exhibits. Some that have lasted for many years.

Leslee:  I have been here to see the evolution of the Birch Aquarium since it opened.  I have had so many interesting experiences because I have worked here and they have all been great!  I have learned so much being here that I am always inspired to keep learning.  This is what keeps me coming back to work each day.

What would you consider your all time favorite memory from Birch Aquarium?  

Fernando: One of my favorites was when the husbandry department decided to have our weekly staff meeting in the ocean: we went snorkeling next to Scripps Pier to check out a large school of anchovies, spectacular and fun! I also loved the collecting trips we used to take in the Gulf of California – the diving was amazing!

Leslee: Being here at the aquarium when President Bill Clinton visited for a special event at the aquarium.  The aquarium was closed to the public that day.  Only those staff that were essential on that day were allowed to be here.  We all had to get security clearances and the staff of the White House were here a week prior preparing the aquarium to be secure for the President.  It was an amazing experience to see what it takes to host the President of the United States.  We were able to see from behind the scenes what went on during his stay.   SWAT team officers, Secret Service officers, White House staff, and many other dignitaries were in attendance.  I was able to meet the US Senator and Representative from my home state of Hawaii who were also in attendance, I gave them a behind the scenes tour.  I also got to shake hands with President Clinton and have an official White House photo taken with all the BAS staff and the President.  As things settled down, one of the SWAT team officers who looked like he would not be afraid of anything, was curious about our sharks.  I let him join me to feed our nurse sharks because he said he was very afraid of sharks!!  I have never seen a tough SWAT team guy so scared!!

Is there any advice you would give to anyone who wants to pursue being an aquarist?

Fernando: I would keep an aquarium at home – you can learn a lot! Major in marine biology or related field, volunteer at a public aquarium, get SCUBA certified, and think about taking the one-year Aquarium Science Program at Oregon Coast Community College.

Leslee: It is a lot of hard work, it is a job of passion to care for live animals.  If someone is passionate about aquatic animals then this is the job for them.  It may not be the most rewarding financially, but being able to work with these animals is super cool!  It is worth the time and effort for the amazing experiences you could have.