Spending every day working with tropical sharks, giant octopuses and the world’s largest crab is all part of the job for aquarist Emma Whittle.
Cheltenham-born but now an adopted Fylde coast resident, the 25-year-old is one of the many workers who help to make Blackpool’s Sea Life Centre tick.
Whether it be testing water quality, helping to raise the newest additions at the aquarium or feeding the centre’s impressive collection of species, Emma’s role is one of the most interesting jobs on the Golden Mile as she spends time with some of the most exotic creatures from under the sea, ensuring the centre remains one of the most popular for visitors in Blackpool.
The marine biology graduate said: “I did not set out to do it, but knew I wanted to be a marine biologist after visiting aquariums in Florida, America – I was just fascinated.
“I went through school knowing this is what I ultimately wanted to do.
“At the centre I look after all the animals, make sure they are fed, fit and healthy and have no signs of sickness.
“The first thing I do in the morning is come in around 8am, open up the aquarium, checking all the animals are OK and do general cleaning.
“Doors open at 10am, then we do food preparation and water tests, with my area being the sea horses.
“In the afternoon I help to feed the sharks and look after other creatures. It is such a varied job, I love it.”
The centre – one of the most popular attractions in the resort – has more than 50 colourful displays housing more than 2,000 aquatic creatures including reef fish, octopus, rays and sea horses.
Its top attractions include Shark Mission, where state-of-the-art technology brings to life the special abilities and behaviour of the ocean creature, while visitors can also come face-to-face with the UK’s only pair of Bowmouth Guitar Sharks – Betty and Boris – who live in the 500,000 litre ocean display and can be seen through the spectacular underwater tunnel.
Later this year a new attraction featuring rays will open at the centre – strengthening the venue’s reputation as one of the best in the region.
As well as her daily tasks, Emma looks after seven volunteers – all hoping to become part of the aquarist team.
“When I left university at Plymouth I took an unpaid internship at the London Sea Life Centre for four months,” she said.
“I did not get paid and only got travel expenses – it was a steep learning curve but it is what you have to do to get a position at a big aquarium.
“All the volunteers here are trying to get experience as they hope to have careers in marine biology or animal management.
“It is a very popular career and when you work at a place like this you can see why.”
All the animals at the centre are safe to work with, with Emma admitted feeding time with the sharks is one of her favourite parts of the day.
But working in London gave her the chance to work with more deadly underwater critters – including the stone fish, one of the most venomous fish in the sea.
She added: “It is great to work with the sharks – I love being able to get up close to them.
“You can’t beat the experience. They get an undeserved and bad reputation, particularly from films, but working in London I got up close with seven stone fish.
“Now that was a challenge. There was a list of protocols in case you touched them.
“Things like making sure the venting was turned off so the water was clear enough to see them all. The venom can kill you in 45 minutes if you are touched.
“The list of protocols includes a contact number for the London hospital with the anti-venom – now that was nerve-wracking.”
Other attractions at the Promenade-based venue include the Octopus Hideout, where visitors can learn more about the eight-legged creatures, as well as ‘Big Daddy,’ whose 9ft claw span makes him the world’s largest crab – a fact recognised in last year’s Guinness Book of Records.
The creature was found by a fishing boat in Japan, but soon made its way to the Fylde coast – something Emma admits is one of the great parts of her job.
She added: “The reason I like working here is that it is such a global company – we are part of a European study into the Black Tip Reef shark at the moment.
“This is really important for studying them and at smaller aquariums you just do not get that opportunity. We swap and share information – it can be Germany or Italy. It is really nice.
“I really like educating people, too. Blackpool is really seasonal, May to November. We get schoolchildren who visit and get really excited and we have tourists who come, too.
“Being indoors, it is quite unique.”
As for the future, Emma said she hopes to remain part of the Sea Life Centre brand for years to come.
She added: “I want to get promoted up to a senior level and be a team leader here. Just more opportunities. I am doing a lot more to do with fund-raising this year and conservation – that is my aim for this year.
“I do feel quite lucky – it is a job I look forward to every day.”