“I did an honours degree on the little penguin – the smallest species of penguin that exists. There’s a colony at The Twelve Apostles on the Great Ocean Road, and I did my research down there. It hadn’t been studied in over 20 years, so I worked out their population size and breeding success, and that’s when I really fell in love with penguins. They’re a bird, but they’re so different to any other bird. They spend the majority of their time at sea, and only really come to the land to breed and moult. And they fly underwater – they use their wings underwater the way other birds use their wings to propel themselves through the air. I always thought that was amazing.
“Marine biology is all I ever wanted to do. I don’t have a first memory of it, but Mum and Dad have always said, ‘You were obsessed.’ There are more marine biology courses available now than when I did mine, but only about five per cent of people who get through their studies will actually get a job. I finished uni in 2005, but didn’t get work in the field till 2013. I can’t tell you how many jobs I applied for and got rejected from. And not just roles working with animals – even working as an admin person in that environment. It’s the sort of industry where 500 people will apply for one position.
“I started off at Melbourne Aquarium as an education officer, doing all the talks and tours for school groups. I never thought I’d be doing public speaking in my job, let alone for students, but I really loved it. Then I got an opportunity to do a few casual shifts with the penguins, then eventually got a casual job, and now, just a couple of months ago, I signed a permanent part-time contract. So it’s still not quite full-time, but I’m getting there.
“You’ve got to be prepared to get dirty. We’ve got Gentoo and King penguins at the aquarium, and you get pooed on a lot. Penguins poo on average 17 times a day, so you can imagine what the exhibit is like after we leave in the afternoon and come back in the morning: the ice is brown. We scrub every single rock, every window as high as we can. Cleaning is a big part of the job. The penguins have never been out in the wild – they’ve never been exposed to germs or bacteria – so we’ve got a really strict cleaning regime to keep everything as sterile as we can.
“We also do enrichment with them, which is keeping them entertained. We blow bubbles, which they’ll try to catch and pop. During breeding season the Gentoo penguins collect pebbles to make their nests, so at the moment we’re scattering pebbles throughout the exhibit three or four times a day. We play them music. I played Delta Goodrem to the penguins the other day, and they seemed to enjoy that, so they mustn’t have very good taste. Other than that, we bring in new ice, do food preparation, monitor their weights and do a hand-feed every day.
“Your attention to detail has to be very good, because you’re looking after 64 animals’ lives. You’ve got to look out for any minute thing that could be wrong with them. Penguins are very good at hiding their symptoms, because they’re colony birds, and they don’t want to be picked on by other birds in the colony. I’ve learnt that you have to be patient with them, though, because they’re animals – you can’t communicate with them like you can with a human. Even so, I’ve gotten to the point where I call the penguins people. Instead of saying, ‘The penguin did this today,’ I’m like, ‘The people did this.’ I’m starting to become a bit strange.”
Image: Bri Hammond
This article first appeared in frankie magazine issue 74 (Nov/Dec 2016).