The James C. Goetz Marine Aquarium within Kingsborough’s Marine Academic Center (The only CUNY college to host an aquarium) contains a 6550-gallon shark tank with 19 predators that are observed throughout the day. Observers can sit on two concrete benches in front of the glass to watch the fish swim by.
Each fiscal year the aquarium is allotted between $2500 and $3000 between three vendors for food, stock and equipment/supplies. They also get about 300 hours for a student aide in the aquarium.
For the amount of work that goes into maintaining the tank, the budget is slim—especially when major repairs are estimated to cost the college between 70,000 dollars and 100,00 dollars this year alone.
Just right of the shark tank are (usually closed) white metal doors with a square plaque that reads: “Marine Aquarium Department of Biological Science” and the room number: M130A.
“It was in the blueprints from when the MAC building was being built,” said biology Professor Mary Ortiz.
There are four additional tanks behind the closed doors that encase a rainbow themed coral reef tank with tropical fish, including two clown fish.
Other tanks include a shy banded shark who hides towards the back of the tank, a sea bass that was caught off of KCC, a conch and two crabs that occasionally snap at the flounder blending in with the sand.
There’s also a tank with a puffer fish that turns into a balloon lookalike when frightened.
Viewing the denizens of the aquarium, few realize there’s an entire staff taking care of the fish.
About seven years ago Professor Goetz, the Director of the Aquarium retired. Ortiz subsequently took over the aquarium. Her knowledge of marine biology and plumbing made her the perfect choice.
“I’ve been doing plumbing since I was nine-years-old,” said Ortiz with a heavy New York accent. “We live in a flood zone and my father had no sons, so when we had floods in the yard, I would set up the hoses and the pumps to help.”
Ortiz works with the budget and makes sure the pipes of every tank are working properly within the utility rooms that house the food, filters, chillers, protein skimmers, pumps and salt regulators.
The chiller, which occupies most of one utility room, cost about 60,000 dollars to replace. There’s noticeable water damage due to broken pipes along the bottom and sides of the tanks, which, if repaired, would cost the College about 80,000 dollars to repair.
Krystal Boley, a biology major at Brooklyn College who works at the aquarium twice a week, began working with the other three staff members in 2014.
She wears her curly dark-blonde hair in a tight ponytail, a cotton t-shirt, jeans and shiny black galoshes, all to keep cool as she feeds the sharks in the muggy “shark room” and clothes that can easily be cleaned off and dried in case something makes a splash or fish guts land on her.
Latex gloves are her favorite accessories during her two-hour shift.
She starts by checking to see if they’re behavior is unusual, if their tanks are clean and most importantly if they’re alive.
“He’s good,” Boley said as she laughs while checking Tank Two. “He’s just chilling.”
She spends the majority of her time in the largest of the utility rooms, which stores the food and houses the four smaller tanks.
As the M130B door opens, a strong whiff of a fish violently makes its way to the nose.
Boley has to complete a two page routine form that jots down the behavior of the fish, cleanliness of the tanks, salt concentration and the amount of food each tank will receive that day.
“The smell is so strong— sometimes it just stays on the clothes,” Boley said.
The 23-year-old College Assistant is an upperclassman and heads to class after her time at the aquarium. She uses the time between work and class to shower and change to avoid smelling like fish during the remainder of her day.
The 5’7 student plans to become a biology professor and first learned about the aquarium from a friend who had the job. Since then, Boley fell in love with marine animals.
“I love learning to care for marine animals,” Boley said while gleaming. “There’s so much that I didn’t know. For example, the different behaviors of fish, all that goes into making sure they’re healthy, how they all differ in feeding.”
She pulls out a stainless steel butcher knife and begins mincing the already weighted capelin—a fish that from an amateur’s perspective looks like a six-inch long sardine. If you’ve ever been to the New York Aquarium and watched the sea lions being fed, you’ve actually spotted capelin, since that’s what their diet consists of.
The KCC Aquarium buys most of their food from the NY Aquarium in Coney Island.
Once the capelin looks like pre-chewed, sand colored chum, Boley begins to prepare the squid, which is their “dessert,” by removing their beaks and pens so that the fish can easily digest the meat.
Every tank receives the capelin and squid in different proportions.
Remember: diet and behavior are unique to each fish.
On Wednesdays, Tanks One and Two get ten grams of capelin and ten grams of squid. Tank 3 gets pampered with 30 grams of capelin, 30 grams of shrimp and two scoops of dry flakes. Tank 4 gets 15 grams of capelin, 15 grams squid. And the shark tank gets one pound of capelin, one pound of squid.
On Fridays, Boley increases their food by five grams each, though a half a pound of capelin is added to the shark tank, depending on how hungry they seem.
Senior Lab Technician John Acevedo began working at the Aquarium side-by-side Professor Goetz when he was a student of Kingsborough.
After he graduated in 1999, he studied natural resource management and soon after returned to Kingsborough to start his career.
Goetz taught Acevedo everything he needed to know about the aquarium.
“He [Goetz] taught me everything about water quality, being an aquarist, everything from plumbing, to fixing things,” said Acevedo. “He was sort of like a jack of all trades.”
During his first year as a lab technician and as an overseer to the aquarium, he fell into the shark tank while transporting a fish that grew too large for one of the smaller tanks.
He’s the only person to have ever fallen in.
“I took a swim in the shark tank,” said Acevedo while smiling. “How many people can say that?”
“Pretty much everyone loves having the aquarium here,” he said. “I think it’s a unique thing that not a lot of schools have, especially CUNY colleges.”
For Acevedo, Boley and Ortiz, caring for the Aquarium is to preserve Goetz’s lifelong passion and keeping his memory alive at Kingsborough.
Goetz’s butterfly, mollusks, reptile and various mammal preserves, which he found during his travels around the globe and donated to Kingsborough, can also be found throughout the S building.
“A big part of why I work here,” said Boley with a smile, “is because I feel inspired by James Goetz’s life and knowing that he developed this aquarium and all the specimens you see in M130 in the hall and within the science building. It speaks to me because I feel like I have that same passion he had— just to love nature.”
Photo by Michelle Yedin