Sea what’s out there

Cape Town’s biggest attractions
What goes on behind the scenes when your office is in one of Cape Town’s biggest attractions, and you work with some of the best swimmers in town?

One of the most beloved spots in Cape Town, the Two Oceans Aquarium at the V&A Waterfront is popular across all age groups. Everyone has their favourite exhibit, from the kelp forest and the sharks to the penguins and the seals – there’s an entire world to explore. We chatted with two of the Two Oceans Aquarium team about their experiences, what they love about working in the aquarium, and why it’s such a special place.

Shanet Rutgers
Senior Penguin Keeper & Animal Health Technician

When I was young, my mom always took me to the aquarium for my birthday, and I was amazed by the fish. The penguin exhibit was always my favourite – I loved watching the penguins’ feeds and dreamt of being an Animal Keeper one day. During high school, one of the educators mentioned to the class that there was a Marine Biology course opening at the Aquarium – and that very same day, I rushed home to write a motivational letter to apply. As soon as I got accepted, I smiled from ear to ear as I knew which career direction I wanted to go in. After the course, I joined the volunteer program and had the opportunity to meet the very same lady who fed the penguins when I used to visit the Aquarium.

She, along with the penguin team, taught me so much about the birds. My heart melted with joy and I was always excited to work with the penguins during my shift. Today, I am one of the Senior penguin Keepers and I still love my job!

Why do you love what you do?

It’s a privilege to work with animals and to teach people – I was first interested in being a schoolteacher when I was young, but when I found my love in penguins, I changed my career. To be able to combine teaching with looking after penguins is just amazing, and every day is a new day with something new to learn!

What is a highlight for you during your day?

Before the Aquarium opens at 9:30am, I get to spend one on one time with the penguins. The birds are fed breakfast and I love being the morning feeder as I get to interact with the penguins with no visitors around. Every morning when I walk onto the penguin beach and call out “Morning, Penguins”, they recognise my voice and will call back instantly – and that is pretty special!

What is a favourite memory from your time of working at the Aquarium?

There are so many memories – when the penguins were very young, they used to visit the office and all the office staff at the Aquarium would down their pens and play with them. Ayah, one of our youngest African penguins on the beach, is always up to mischief and can often be seen visiting empty nests and popping his head out, which provides plenty of entertainment to visitors. And then there’s lavender day. Penguins love lavender because it’s soft and acts as a natural insect repellent for birds, and when we place it on the beach for nesting material, they squabble over it as they waddle across which is incredibly funny.

What would you like the public to know about life at the Aquarium?

It’s an educational space – each animal that comes into the aquarium is an ambassador for its species, to teach people about what life under water is like. It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity for me to show people what there is underwater, and how much there is to discover. It’s not always about the big fish, like sharks and whales – there are other facets such as gracefulness, colour, tranquillity that the aquarium can show the public.

Kirshia Govender
FET & Adult Courses Teacher

I started within the aquarium as a volunteer in 2008, working with people and animals behind the scenes, and studied as a marine biologist and oceanographer while I was volunteering. I became interested in working with the public in an education role, and today I work for the Two Oceans Education Foundation, working with Grade 10s and above.

Why do you love what you do?

My work environment has really inspired my love of the ocean and working with animals, and I really enjoy connecting with people and sharing that passion through education. It’s also incredibly fulfilling to be part of a team that has a bigger purpose. You might not know this but a lot of the fish within the aquarium are only here temporarily for research and rehabilitation purposes – for example, sharks stay with us for a maximum of three years and are released once they reach sexual maturity. The health of the animals is our number one priority. At our turtle rehab facility, turtles that have washed up on shore with injuries and mobility problems are brought to us for long-term rehabilitation. Bob the Green Turtle was with us for 8 years after he ingested plastic and was impacted by the toxins. We created an enrichment programme for him to make sure he could survive without assistance, and I’m thrilled that we were able to release him back into the ocean recently.

What is a highlight for you during your day?

Diving in the tanks and feeding the stingrays and sharks. I can do a talk from inside the tank, so I love educating while working with animals. On the external side, it’s great doing rocky shore lessons on the beach and highlighting the life on the shore.

What is a favourite memory at the Aquarium?

Naturally, there are quite a few! One incident happened while I was a penguin keeper involving a young penguin called Ayoba who is a naughty little character. I was just finishing up my tasks for the day and he decided to hide. We couldn’t find him anywhere. Everyone got involved, walking around the aquarium and looking for him. Eventually, an hour later, I walked into the storytelling area and found him hiding in the dark, behind a chair! Another memorable moment was seeing a live stingray birth. It rarely happens, and when it does, it’s very quick – this was the first time I got to see it in my 14 years of working at the Aquarium.

Are there any behind the scenes antics you’d like to share?

Once, while holding a sleepover by the predator tank, a ragged tooth shark ate a yellowtail fish in front of a group of young children. The kids (understandably) freaked out and we had to call a lot of parents that night!

What would you like the public to know about life at the Aquarium?

We do lots of work outside of the Aquarium, such as working in the harbour with seals and birds that get tangled in things and rehabilitating and monitoring turtles. There’s so much love that goes into this work, and the Aquarium is more than just a window for people to see animals – there’s effort that goes into every facet.

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