IU Under the Sea

In the 1989 Disney animated film The Little Mermaid, Ariel traded her mermaid tail for legs. But we have a feeling that these four IU alums, given the opportunity, just might opt to be where the people dolphins are. Keep reading to find out what it’s like to work at an aquarium—with job descriptions ranging from swimming with belugas to maintaining a coral reef system.

Zach Ransom, ’09

Phillip and Patricia Frost Museum of Science
Curator of animal husbandry

Zach Ransom has been with the Frost Museum for nearly five years. “I started two years prior to the facility opening and was involved in the design and construction of the aquarium complex,” he says. Courtesy photo.

Can you describe a typical day at the aquarium?
ZR: In my current position as curator of animal husbandry, I’m responsible for the health and well-being of our vast living collection of plants and animals. I’m also the museum’s dive-safety officer.

What are your favorite animals to work with?
ZR: I’ve had a fairly diverse career spanning several different public aquarium institutions; much of that experience was focused on husbandry and propagation of corals in aquaria. Some people may not think of the coral animal as terribly exciting, but I find the beauty and challenge of constructing and maintaining a successful reef system extremely rewarding. I’m also quite fond of working with sharks.

What drew you to sharks? What’s it like diving with them?
ZR: Believe it or not, the movie Jaws was the initial impetus for my fascination with sharks. I would scour the stacks of my local public library for every book about sharks I could find, take them all to a table, and page through them for hours. I remember staring at the grainy photos in awe of the animals, and the crazy photographer who would jump in the water with these monsters of the deep. Sharing the water with such an immense and powerful creature is thrilling for sure, but the experience is so much more than that. I feel completely calm and at peace in those situations. Eye contact is an important part of being in close quarters with large sharks, when you break your gaze, they often decide it’s safe to move a little closer. To capture these moments with my camera and share them with the world in hope of possibly breaking some negative stereotypes—that is the payoff for me.

Do you have a favorite memory from your career so far?
ZR: I was fortunate enough to participate in some coral genetics research on the island of Curaçao in the Caribbean with an organization called SECORE International, whose mission is to conserve coral reefs worldwide through education and restoration efforts. Part of the work involved collecting Elkhorn coral gametes during their annual spawning event—which for this species only occurs one night per year—so the stakes are fairly high. Being on the reef at night and witnessing a phenomenon that has secretly and silently occurred under the cover of darkness for millions of years was a profound experience.

Morgan Becker, BA’14

Georgia Aquarium
Marine mammal trainer 

Morgan Becker has been with the Georgia Aquarium for roughly four years. “My absolute favorite [animals to work with] are the belugas. They will always have a special place in my heart because they are so unique and so vocal,” she says. Courtesy photo.
Do you have a favorite memory from your career so far?
MB: My favorite memory would be getting in the water with dolphins for the first time. It was such a rush, yet so relaxing at the same time.

How did your time at IU prepare you for your job?
MB: My diving safety officer opened the door for me in this field. I had amazing references from IU that helped me stand out.

Alexis Miller, BGS’13

Miami Seaquarium
Marine mammal specialist

Alexis Miller is new to her position at the Miami Seaquarium. Prior to relocating, she worked at Dolphin Discovery in Panama City Beach, Fla., for two years. Courtesy photo.

Do you have a favorite memory from your career so far?
AM: Last year I went back to Indiana for vacation. [On] my first day back to work, I had an in-water dolphin interaction program with guests. There were two dolphins in the water, and they went to the wrong trainers. When my dolphin was pointed over to me, she popped up and saw me—and squealed with what I hope was excitement. I’ll never forget that moment.

What are your favorite things to do during a play session with dolphins?
AM: Dolphins discover the world with their mouths and are super curious. Some of my favorite things to do [are] playing ball, free swimming, and floating with them after a guest program.

Sarah Hoback, BA’06

Newport Aquarium
Newport, Ky.
Animal care coordinator

Sarah Hoback has been with the Newport Aquarium for just under a year. “I actually started the day we closed to the public due to the pandemic, so it’s been a wild ride,” she says. Courtesy photo.

What does a typical day look like for you as an animal-care coordinator?
SH: Right now, my biggest job is to make sure our record-keeping system is up to date and that everything we do is in line with the requirements set by the state and federal government, as well as the Association of Zoos and Aquariums—the organization that accredits us. I do a lot of work in our water-quality lab—testing water to make sure everything is safe for the animals, and then working with the biologists to fix problems that arise. That said, there are always things that come up when you work with animals. I’ve had the opportunity to go out and do field work, I’ve assisted with surgeries and other medical treatments, and every now and then, I get to go hang out with the penguins.

What are your favorite animals to work with?
SH: Sea lions are pretty amazing. They’re so smart and that makes them mischievous. They work together, they get into everything, they’re very expressive, and they are, hands down, the most resilient animal I’ve ever encountered. Sea lions act in the ocean very much like a canary in a coal mine—they have been facing a multitude of problems out there for a long time.

Do you have a favorite memory from your career so far?
SH: Getting to help raise a penguin chick. I watched him hatch, I got to watch him discover the world, learn how to swim, and find his place in the colony. It’s a really special feeling to be able to build a relationship with an animal.

Is there anything people would be surprised to know about your job?
SH: Animal care in an aquarium is so much more than meets the eye. There’s husbandry, but there’s also plumbing, engineering, chemistry, etc. There’s so much that goes on behind the scenes that our guests don’t get to see. It’s also really collaborative. It’s impossible to know everything about every species so institutions often work together to solve problems and swap ideas.

If you enjoyed this article, check out IU at the Zoo, which interviews six alumni who work with some of the world’s most endearing animals, including Fiona the famous hippo. 

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Written By
Samantha Stutsman
Samantha Stutsman, BAJ'14, is a Bloomington, Ind., native and a content specialist at the IU Alumni Association.