Home to over 250 organisms, the Dennis Kelly Aquarium at Orange Coast College is the largest student-run aquarium in California. Going into the fall 2020 semester however, this arrangement posed some difficulties.
“We have five paid staff that come in on staggered times, and they care for everything right now,” said Lindsey Williamson, director of the aquarium. “They’re doing a lot of work, taking care of all the feeding, all the water changes, all the troubleshooting and maintenance that we would normally have upwards of 60 or 70 students in there helping us do.”
David Mayorga Jr., a marine science major who is also seeking an Aquarium Science Certification at OCC, served as a student manager in the aquarium in spring 2019. He, like many of his peers, has found the program to be profoundly impactful.
“Working at the aquarium is really something else,” Mayorga said. “You learn from student managers or paid staff and help them with various tasks while they show you the ropes, every day is something different and never a boring moment. It’s probably one of the most rewarding life experiences I’ve had so far.”
However, social distancing and the campus closing meant these activities became impossible for students. Lab classes had to be postponed entirely for the fall semester, leaving the department to improvise equitable experiences for the few classes that could be continued through remote means.
“Some of the things we’ve done is sending out kits to [students’] homes. This past semester, we had our animal husbandry class and students were sent home with their own aquarium, and their own aquarium plants, their own aquarium substrate, their own aquarium pumps, and everything like that,” Williamson said.
In the spring, some marine science classes will be allowed to resume on campus, including Practical Experience in Aquarium Science and Management. These classes will allow students to tend the aquarium with some new safety precautions. According to Williamson, these classes have already been waitlisted.
“Essentially one student will be working at a station, doing the feeding, cleaning, the regular maintenance, learning all the different aspects of aquarium care, and then there will be another student, probably like nine feet away from them, on a different aquarium system,” Williamson said.
Aquarium Life Support Operations and Maintenance and Husbandry of Aquatic Organisms are two courses that have been recently added to the OCC roster as part of the Aquarium Science certificate program that was launched in 2019.
The nine-unit program prepares students for a career in caring for aquatic animals while also providing hands-on experience in a host of engaging activities. These can include raising white sea-bass to release into the wild, tending the aquarium’s many tanks, treating rescued animals donated to the aquarium, overseeing sponsored experiments, and more.
The number of students in the classes will also be reduced. While Williamson is sad to have to limit the number of students, she is glad to be able to safely bring students back into the facilities.
The aquarium was first opened in 1971, and began bringing students in to care for its inhabitants in 1974, the same year Dennis Kelly, for whom it would eventually be named, was hired at OCC. During his time with the college, Kelly put a tremendous amount of work into developing the program into what it is.
“As part of my hiring, I was named aquarium director and immediately began getting students involved in running the aquarium – especially female students, who were not encouraged to participate in marine science at the time,” Kelly said in an email.
The aquarium is currently on the California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s call list to take in confiscated organisms in need of homes.