A Day In and Out of the Water at Ripley’s Aquarium
It’s hard to imagine a person better suited for the aquatic life than animal behaviorist Alex McMinn. An Education Supervisor and Ripley’s Aquarium employee since 2012, the 27-year old is bright, beautiful, bubbly and equally great with kids, adults and the animals she loves. Her long nearly white hair, a look she’s fostered since long before working at Ripley’s, and inspired, she says, by Game of Thrones, enhances her mermaid persona. McMinn is used to having her picture taken, but she’s far more valuable than just a tourist photo-op. She knows the aquarium, its laboratories, hatcheries, power plants and its aquatic and amphibian residents as well as anyone (and better than most).
I recently spent the better part of a day with McMinn to gain an understanding of the important work of the aquarium and the unique ways in which she and the entire Ripley’s staff interact with the public and the animals in their care.
An hour before the aquarium’s doors open to the public I make my way in; it’s rare to see it without throngs of visitors. First opened in 1997, with very few exceptions the award-winning attraction has remained open 365 days per year ever since. My eye catches a group of men and women in wetsuits, huddled together in the waist-deep water of Ray Bay. These aquarists start their days much earlier than most of the staff, and today are doing an ultrasound on a pregnant ray. As they look at the data, oohing and ahhing at the images on their laptop computers, they take no notice of me. While I wait to meet McMinn, I cautiously walk toward the side of the tank. This group of serious-minded marine biologists is not usually in the public eye, and, I’m told, they prefer it that way.
McMinn greets me and I fail to hide my astonishment—this young woman is clearly a mermaid out of water. Originally from the mountains of Hendersonville, N.C., and a graduate of Coastal Carolina University, she has the naturally friendly demeanor required of one in the public eye. She’s charged with helping to implement an extensive education curriculum, as well as managing some 300 shifts per week for the mermaids, glass bottom boat tours, summer camps, divers and floor educators. Additionally, she manages the hiring and training for those under her supervision. McMinn dons the mermaid getup as often as needed, but not nearly as often as she used to. “I’m not the only mermaid,” she laughs, when I suggest her workload must be exhausting. “We’re always training new girls [no mermen, yet] and so some days I’m not in the water at all.”
The training lasts up to three months and usually takes place after closing in the deep end of the giant 85,000-gallon tank of Ray Bay. The mermaids must perfect synchronized underwater acrobatics, finding their marks, breath control, and, most importantly, waving to the crowd, Queen of England style. Many new recruits wash out, finding it much harder than it looks.
McMinn leads me through closed doors to an area not generally open to the public, but that is a part of the Behind- the-Scenes Tour, which is available with special ticket packages. Our first stop is in the basement, one of only a handful of actual basements along the entire Grand Strand. “We’re standing five-and-a-half feet below sea level,” she says. She points out generators and explains that storm teams hunker down through hurricanes to watch over the animals. Here massive pumps and filtration systems keep the water healthy and oxygenated. Ripley’s makes its own saltwater, free of the pollution and imperfections found in oceans.
Ripley’s Aquarium Myrtle Beach is the oldest of the three aquariums owned by Ripley Entertainment, which operates more than 90 attractions worldwide. The other aquariums are in Gatlinburg and Toronto. “Because of our location, we supply all three of our aquariums with all the sea life,” says McMinn with a hint of pride. It’s a huge undertaking that requires annual boat trips out of Murrells Inlet to capture sharks, as well as trips to the Florida Keys to obtain other species.
“This is our brine shrimp hatchery,” she says, two doors down, pointing to incubators that grow millions of the little crustaceans that are a primary food source. “When they’re about two days old they’re ready to be [lunch].” Additionally, the larger aquarium residents eat fish, and some, I will soon find out, even dine on gourmet fare.
“This is one of my favorite places,” she says, turning and pointing to a large cabinet under dim lighting that seems to be steaming, though it’s actually cool water vapor. “We grow our own poisonous dart frogs, though we don’t feed them poisonous food, which keeps them safe. They are hatched and grown here and then moved out into the [public] exhibits. I explain to the kids that if I fed you a poisonous chocolate chip cookie, then you’d become poisonous yourself.” The obvious difference is that the frogs are unharmed by the poison, the kids, not so much.
McMinn leads me to a laboratory with enough microscopes and equipment to stand in as a set for a good sci-fi movie. We are by ourselves, but typically the tour would have up to ten guests in tow. “We check water quality in all our tanks, multiple times each day. There’s so much to do. I was an aquarist for four years and all my parents thought I did was feed fish,” she laughed. “We test for temperature, dissolved oxygen, salinity and pH every day.”
As we walk through the labyrinth of the aquarium’s behind-the-scenes facilities, we talk about the long-awaited penguin exhibit that will open sometime before the end of 2019. “I’ve been waiting seven years for these little guys to waddle through the door,” says McMinn. “I can’t wait.”
In the Animal Health Lab, staff members regularly perform necropsies on each and every fish that goes “fins up.” “We have to determine why a fish has died,” McMinn says. It may be old age, but it could be something more serious that requires intervention. “We have to know what happened. Most of the aquarists are trained to do this. I’ve done many necropsies myself,” she says. “We look for parasites on their gills, see if they’re too fatty, all kinds of things. We’ll do blood tests on the sharks and rays, especially when we first get them in.”
Scuba certified, McMinn is in the water as often as her schedule will allow, preferring to dive over any other duty. “I snorkel in the Living Reef tanks.” Snorkeling is less harmful to the fragile coral. “I love to feed the fish, and oddly enough, clean the tanks. I have a smidgen of OCD,” she says with a laugh.
She sees herself as a rare breed of aquarists. “I realized that most fish people don’t like people, they prefer fish and science. They just want to take care of their animals. I love people, I love fish, I love the science, and I love teaching people what I know.” She started out at the aquarium humbly enough as a full-time mermaid, braiding little girls’ hair and posing for photos of the tykes delighted to be wearing miniature mermaid tails. McMinn’s affection for the children is obvious. “I used to play Elsa, from Frozen, for a character company here in Myrtle Beach.”
The aquarium has now been open for 40 minutes, and the crowds have been growing steadily. We wander through the heart and soul of Ripley’s, the glide path underneath Dangerous Reef, the 750,000-gallon tank where sharks swim lazily, cohabitating with a wide variety of fish. Because the sharks are individually target-fed, it’s rare to see a shark or any large fish eat another of its tank mates. “They’re really kind of lazy,” says McMinn. A long grabber device is used by the divers so their hands never get too close to the business end of a hungry shark.
As we embark on the Glass Bottom Boat Tour, we don life vests and step aboard with our captain, David Mousch. As he pulls us slowly around the surface of the giant tank, we look down past our feet, through the thick acrylic floor, at the multitude of sea life swimming just inches below us. McMinn and Mousch point out various species and explain one interesting detail or another about the animals and the aquarium. As we float comfortably and slowly over the water, we see guests below us, and below the sharks, pointing up at us, as if we too are on display.
In the Rainbow Amazon exhibit, McMinn points out a variety of fish and amphibians, including a caiman, which looks like a small alligator. “He eats rainbow trout and mice,” she says. I comment on the eclectic gourmet menu. “He used to eat just mice, but then just stopped eating them and that was a big problem. We discovered he liked rainbow trout the best, and now that’s what he gets fed. He absolutely loves the trout. All of our animals are so well fed. We have a shark that suddenly wouldn’t eat herring or mackerel any longer, so now she eats lobster tail. We have to take the meat out of the shell for her.”
As we wander past various exhibits, McMinn points out her favorites. When we get to the octopus, her face really lights up. “She is my favorite animal in the entire aquarium. She is so smart. I taught one to open a peanut butter jar to get their food. They sit up on two of their arms and focus their attention. You teach them by showing them; they’re literally learning like a [human] toddler would.” Behind the exhibit, again not open to the public, we see the top of the octopus tank and the extraordinary measures taken to keep her where she belongs. “We’ve heard stories about an aquarium where fish turned up missing. After they installed a night-vision camera, they discovered the octopus crawling out of its tank, into other tanks, eating the fish, then crawling back to its own tank before the morning crews arrived. We keep a close eye on her.”
A favorite, in special thanks to the Finding Nemo movies, a large green sea turtle named Gabby glides through the water in Dangerous Reef to the delight of the children who recognize her and yell “turtle!” “Gabby is owned by the federal government,” explains McMinn, “because all sea turtles are endangered. She was a rescue, and is perfectly healthy. We think she’s at least 60 years old. [Her lifespan may exceed 80 years.] She’s target fed and eats veggie-stuffed squid.”
We make a quick stop at McMinn’s office and find two other staffers pounding away at their computers, doing a variety of sales and marketing tasks. McMinn checks her schedule, answers a few emails and we move on. Just outside the door, junior staffers, some brand new this season, ask McMinn for clarification of their daily duties. In season, Ripley’s employs several hundred full- and part-time workers.
We stop to watch a mermaid show, one of the aquarium’s most popular recurring attractions. The room facing Ray Bay’s tall tank is packed with children and their parents. Our Mermaid Host, Mousch, is a familiar face; he was also our glass bottom boat captain. Now he’s launched into the 30-minute pre-show. The crowd grows in anticipation as Mousch warms them up with a few jokes, answers their questions and talks about Ray Bay with the ease of an experienced emcee.
The music swells and we get our first glimpse of the mermaids, their tails slapping the water high in the tank. Like synchronized swimmers, two mermaids plunge into the water, do flips and wave to the audience. With no scuba or snorkeling gear, they make repeated moves back to the top of the tank for air, always smiling as they look at the crowd. “By the way, they can’t see a thing,” laughs McMinn. “They smile and look like they see you, but it’s actually a giant blur.” The kids know no differently, however, and interact with the mermaids, fully lost in the fantasy.
I comment that it really looks like hard work. “It is,” confirms McMinn, “it’s claustrophobic, makes you prone to sinus infections, the tails are painful and rigid where your feet are locked into place at a weird angle. … It’s not for everybody.”
After the mermaid meet and greet is over at the shallow edge of Ray Bay, McMinn and two of the marketing staff prepare for a Facebook Live streaming event, and I get recruited to host and ask a series of prepared questions. McMinn disappears to don her mermaid outfit and returns 10 minutes later, swimming through the water to the delight of a handful of children who are never too far away. She sits on the rocks with her mermaid tail gently flapping at the water’s edge and we talk about rays. When our interview concludes, she swims around the perimeter of Ray Bay answering questions and posing for photographs.
Back on dry land, McMinn and I share a brief sit-down at the aquarium’s cafe and she looks longingly at my Diet Mountain Dew. “I had to stop drinking those,” she admits. “I was up to four or five a day. Obsessed. Totally hooked.” Now clean, temptation quelled, she tells me the rest of her day will be a repeat of the kinds of activities I’ve already witnessed; maybe a dive to clean the tanks or feed the fish and answering countless questions as a floor educator.
It’s clear to me that this part mermaid, part scientist is still totally hooked, but now she’s hooked on the family of animals she’s come to know and love, less than a mile from the Atlantic Ocean, and a world away from her mountain home of North Carolina.
PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY OF BOBBY ALTMAN/RIPLEY’S AQUARIUM