Fishy Chow Line
Volunteers reveal what it’s like to feed the sea creatures at Museum of Coastal Carolina.
“Sometimes the balloon fish come to the surface and spit water on me!” It’s funny but true, and it happens at the Museum of Coastal Carolina in Ocean Isle Beach more often than the volunteers like. But why would a fish do such a thing?
“Because she’s hungry and sometimes I don’t feed her fast enough for her liking,” says volunteer Veronica Quinn.
Unfortunately, the small burrfishes also enjoy the same antic. “They want to eat first, apparently,” proclaims volunteer Judy Sobota.
“They can really get you wet.”
Sobota, with 20 years of service, and Quinn, with six, are two of a team of Fish Feeders at the popular tourist destination at 21 E. Second Street. They and their teammates alternate serving the 93 fish, plus more than 100 anemones, and invertebrates, day over day.
“There are 36 different species, and we’ve got to feed the right foods in the correct amounts to keep our residents happy and healthy,” Quinn says. It takes lots of training and meticulous care.
Sobota oversees the feeders and water-chemistry volunteers. Her daily responsibility includes freezing donated and store-bought food on site at the museum. “This kills any parasites and bacteria that could endanger them,” she says. Then she packages it into individual bags so the feeders can pick up just the right amounts for use in each of 10 fish tanks. “We start by defrosting clams, fish and shrimp,” Quinn picks up, “then cutting them into pieces suitable to the size of the fish and their mouths.”
The sea life feed in the mornings, so the volunteers come in around 9 am. Preparations and feedings take about three hours, Quinn says, depending on how cooperative the animals are.
When prepping their breakfast, Quinn says she’s concentrating on the size of the fish in a particular tank, the size of their mouths and how much food they should eat. She watches to see that they are all eating. For the sea life that are not as aggressive as others, the feeders try to place (or target) the food directly to the fish to make sure they get enough to eat. She demonstrates by cutting a small round of shrimp and attaching it to the end of a wooden skewer. She then gently approaches the underside of a submerged spiny urchin. The invertebrate accepts the food into its thorny round body, and its spines move in unison to gather it to an entry hole at its bottom. Delicious! And thank you!
Cross contamination is always a possibility when working with a number of tanks, so the volunteers are extremely careful. They work with an experienced feeder for a few weeks before going out on their own. Sobota follows up every afternoon looking for any disease, unusual behavior and leftover food in the tanks, and to perform tank maintenance.
“The feeders and chemistry volunteers have logbooks where they record the chemistry results and what the sea life ate, plus what they fed them, which I also review,” she says.
A typical morning, Quinn says, is busy but quiet unless it is a day when they have a public feeding, and then it can get hectic. Public feedings take place Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays during the summer.
“That’s when they help us feed the creatures in the Touch Tank only,” Quinn says. “And I get a chance to educate the public about our wonderful animals and how important they are to the world we live in. I especially enjoy the children and the questions we get: ‘What do they eat? Are they alive? Will they hurt me? Do you name them? Can I touch them? Do you talk to them?’”
The Stone family from Laurel Hill in Scotland County comes in then with two children, and Quinn beams as she turns a small horseshoe crab on its back and shows them how to carefully feed it. The kids aren’t afraid to get their hands wet.
“Yes, I talk to them,” Quinn says. “I encourage them to eat. They are used to hearing us coming with the food and they are comforted to be fed. But some of them are fussy. I keep trying. Some like to be hand-fed. Hey, I am just here to help you, silly!” And do they have names? Well, Quinn says they’re not really supposed to name them. That said, she introduces the balloon fish buddies Sailor and Missy.
Sobota adds that the children can also help feed urchins, sea stars, burrfish, whelks, hermit crabs and anemones. Some of the fish have personalities. “Balloon fish look as if they are smiling all the time. Our larger fish in the ship tank also seem to fascinate visitors. The lionfish who we call the Old Man lumbers around seemingly bored by his very active tank mates. The children also enjoy holding the sea stars and urchins. It’s a very fun time for all.”
Many of the feeders and chemistry volunteers are retired, Sobota notes. They work in teams of two, each team feeding once a week.
From spade fish to permits, lookdowns to sergeant majors, every fish gets hungry and needs to eat. Thanks to the teams of volunteers the fish stay fed and strong, so visitors can have a great learning and fun experience at the Museum of Coastal Carolina.
The museum encourages retirees to come volunteer with them. There are more than 100 volunteers who also give their time at the front desk and the Touch Tank and who work with school group visits, conduct special programs and help to maintain exhibits, buildings and landscaping.
“It’s a win-win for all,” Sobota encourages.
Want to volunteer?
Go to museumplanetarium.org to learn more about volunteering, sponsorships and what the museum and its sister facility, Ingram Planetarium in Sunset Beach, have to offer — and maybe even give some of your time to feed the fish!