OCC Aquarium offers marine science experience for students

A leopard shark swims through sea kelp with other small sharks at the OCC aquarium. 

Orange Coast College’s Dennis Kelly Aquarium has been running for over 50 years, created not only to help marine science students gain experience and learn about aquatic life, but also to keep different marine species healthy and safe.

The aquarium features a wide variety of marine life in different types of saltwater systems. 

OCC has two reef systems, where they have live anemones, many types of tropical fish and coral. This is a high-maintenance aquarium due to the specific needs of different species.

“They’re hard to maintain because corals need the most pristine water quality,” Aquarium Coordinator Mary Blasius said. “We have an ecosystem from the Amazon.”

OCC’s aquarium adopted these tropical aquatic species from U.S. Fish and Wildlife, a government agency that protects and houses various animals. “Some people try to take them without the proper paperwork,” Blasius said. 

Another way the OCC aquarium helps conserve marine life is by adopting animals from hatcheries that aim to regrow populations that have been impacted by environmental stressors such as overfishing.

“We have eels, Garibaldi, the marine state fish, starfish and White Sea Bass from the fish hatchery in Carlsbad at the Sea World Research Institute,” Blasius said. “We grow them and then send them back into the ocean. This started in the 80s when they were being overfished. We grow 75-100 of them.”

OCC aquarium also focuses on sustainability. The aquaponics system uses fish feces to create fertilizer for vegetable plants, which are used by the Culinary Arts Department. Because of the aquaponics system, they don’t have to buy fertilizer for their veggies.

Though it is home to many different mini-ecosystems requiring a lot of care, the aquarium is entirely maintained by students, with advice and guidance from Blasius. 

“They’re currently regaling a system [for the aquarium],” Blasius said. “I just try to guide and direct, but I never tell them, ‘you have to do this or that.’”

The aquarium provides hands-on experience for marine science students in every stage of their learning. First-semester students can learn by helping aquarium managers. This entails cleaning tanks and feeding the animals. 

With more experience, students learn how to grow a bacteria population and fragment and cut coral. Eventually, students can become aquarium managers who help advise and maintain the aquarium. 

“We have our base A120 class, which is our beginner class, learning about the basics, and after that is our A220 where students can be managers and mentor our beginner A120 students,” said Connor Gromak, an aquarium manager and student at OCC. “I’ve gone through both programs, and I work there now.”

Because of the amount of effort and dedication the aquarium managers put in each week, they get paid for their time. 

“We get paid, but it’s more than just a job. We need to constantly be there. I’m there around 25 hours a week,” Gromak said.

OCC’s aquarium program also offers certificates for over 100 hours of experience, which can be used on a resume for future internships and jobs. This type of experience has allowed students from OCC’s aquariums to get hired at larger aquariums such as Aquarium of the Pacific, Monterey Bay Aquarium and Cabrillo Aquarium

“We are the largest student-run aquarium in the western US,”  Gromak said. “There aren’t really aquarium programs like this. It’s super special.”

The marine science class, located in room 120, as well as the aquarium, are in the Lewis Center with three tanks visible from outside.

On Oct. 14, OCC is hosting a “Science Night” from 5 to 9 p.m., which includes exhibits from different STEM programs throughout OCC, featuring a touch tank at the aquarium. This spring, the aquarium will have an open house for their 53rd anniversary as well. The aquarium also offers opportunities for people to come view the tanks outside of these events on Tuesdays from 2 to 4 p.m. 

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