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My 10 Favorite Guest Encounters

Neda leading school tourI was hired at Greater Cleveland Aquarium in November 2011 and with the exception of a COVID-related furlough, I have worked here as an employee ever since. I started off as a Guest Experience Associate—one of the welcoming team members stationed in our galleries to answer any and all inquiries about the animals or the facility. I then transferred to the Education Department as an Associate leading school tours. I was briefly an Education Assistant, which required that I book and schedule all tours, help develop and implement all materials for each grade and group that visits and collecting and processing payments. Eventually I took on the role of Office Assistant, and I have been doing the job ever since.

As I have had various positions at the Aquarium over its 10-year history, I have had a broad perspective of the organization and our guests. Here are my 10 favorite customer service encounters of the last decade:

  1. Leading a group of schoolchildren on a tour and having them make a shark fin on their heads to keep the group together and make traveling from gallery to gallery more fun.
  2. Convincing a guest to actually touch a stingray when they were initially terrified.
  3. Giving a school bus driver meticulous, turn-by-turn directions after they were re-routed due to construction.
  4. Laughing with a guest for more than 20 minutes on the phone. She called with purchasing issues and ended up as an annual Passholder.
  5. Slowly leading an extremely nervous young child to touch the Shark Gallery acrylic to prove the sharks wouldn’t hurt him.
  6. Finally meeting a guest that I had helped schedule a program for three years in a row.
  7. Watching a guest ask their significant other to marry them and taking pictures as part of our “Underwater Greeting” experience.
  8. Having an in-depth conversation about the history of the Powerhouse, the Flats and Cleveland with an older guest who had moved away from the city but returned for a hometown visit.
  9. Slowly walking through the Seatube with an adult who had a slight phobia about the space and the animals but was trying to overcome them both.
  10. Being an elf during the winter holiday and witnessing the guests’ excitement when they saw and heard Scuba Claus.

Neda International Talk Like a Pirate DayThere are so many more, but those are the ones that stand out in my memory. I must say that I look forward to countless more in my next 10 years!

–Neda S.

Reaching the 2-Million-Mark During 10th Anniversary Year

On April 26, Greater Cleveland Aquarium welcomed its two millionth general admission visitors, the Britt family. The Aquarium first opened its doors in the Nautica Waterfront District in January of 2012. Almost exactly a decade later, its curation team announced a major achievement—the rare births of weedy sea dragons, an event few aquariums in the world have witnessed. “These hatchlings were a great way to kick-off our tenth anniversary year,” says curator Ray Popik, one of five team members who have been with the Aquarium continuously since its construction. “This is a major accomplishment and we’re excited to document and share what we learn from the process with others focused on the care and conservation of this delicate species,” he says. Today the Aquarium is home to 3,600 animals representing 250 fresh and saltwater species.

2 Millionth GuestExhibit design has everything to do with the Aquarium’s success, both rearing sea dragons and in terms of the destination’s unique appeal but retrofitting a historic brick powerhouse with an aquarium is not without its challenges, explains Senior Maintenance Technician and Exhibit Diver Mike Gorek, another employee who’s been on board since “before there was water.” “Finding opportunities in the limitations and figuring out how to create viable, one-of-a-kind habitats from scratch the way we have with the giant Pacific octopus arch or the Tropical Forest aviary is a fun and rewarding part of my job,” says Gorek. Guests who have not visited Greater Cleveland Aquarium since it opened will discover that its galleries have been rethemed and only a single exhibit—the red-bellied piranha habitat—has not been reimagined in some way.

Species diversity, immersive décor, child’s eye-level exhibits and 360-degree views have solidified the downtown Cleveland attraction as a family friendly tourist destination which in turn has contributed to the growing vibrancy of the community, asserts Office Assistant Neda Spears. When Spears began as an Aquarium Guest Experience Associate back in 2012, there wasn’t nearly as much activity in The Flats and the adjacent Gordon Square, Hingetown and Ohio City neighborhoods. “Now there are any number of terrific eateries, breweries, shops, performance venues and trails for our team, guests and 15,000 Passholders to enjoy,” says Spears.

Hired in 2011, Dive Safety Coordinator Halle Minshall heads up team of scuba divers responsible for underwater cleaning, husbandry maintenance and guest engagement. While she loves being in exhibits with sharks and stingrays every week, she feels rewarded by looking out through the acrylic to see visitors making a connection with the aquatic world. “We encourage guests to consider how their actions can impact waterways and the natural habitats of some pretty amazing animals,” says Minshall. “I also hope we can share some of our passion for the water and inspire our guests to learn more about biology and marine science, and maybe even learn to scuba dive.”

While conservation and education are at the heart of the mission-driven institution, the two-million-mark doesn’t include 11,000 annual school students or countless special event guests. “We would have reached two million guests much earlier had it not been for the pandemic,” General Manager Stephanie White acknowledges. The Aquarium experienced a three-month COVID closure and nearly two years of limited capacity and timed entry to facilitate social distancing. “We’re grateful for the support of the community and very proud of the creative and dedicated team that has helped us weather the challenging times.”

Small Animal Feedings

During Spring Discovery Days, Greater Cleveland Aquarium focuses on the little things. That’s why created a series of short “mealtime” videos featuring some of smaller residents.

In this one, Aquarist Bethany gives the Surinam toads one of their favorite treats . . . earthworms. 

Here’s cellphone footage of Aquarist Seneca feeding an animal you might spot in Northeast Ohio parks . . . the yellow spotted salamander.

Sea stars eat in a way you might find odd. They extend their stomachs out of their mouths and envelop their food. Aquarist Katie fed a Bahama sea star and we sped up the video so you could watch this process. The food is partially digested externally, and eventually the sea star will pull its stomach back in through the mouth.

And here’s cellphone footage of Lando feeding frontosa, black piebald and daffodil cichlids.

Hungering for more? You never know what you’ll see when you visit the Aquarium.

–Curation 

Are They Bad Guys or Just Misunderstood?

Sometimes reputation is not reality. Greater Cleveland Aquarium’s Education team takes a quick looks at snakes, piranhas and sharks to see if they’re really “bad guys” or just misunderstood.

SNAKES

Snakes have been portrayed as bad guys across the globe for centuries. Ancient Greeks share the myth of Medusa with her head of snakes turning humans to stone.  Christianity writes about snakes representing evil and temptation in the garden of Eden. Ancient Egyptians tell of a two-headed serpent guarding the underworld.
Paired with the fact that some snakes deliver a venomous bite, it is not surprising that many people dislike or even fear snakes. However, with more than 3,000 different species of snakes on the planet, there is much to celebrate as well. Less than 7% of snake species are able to significantly harm a human. Snakes play an important role in keeping rodent pest populations under control. Many snakes are both predator and prey in an ecosystem food web, so losing them would have a negative affect on many other species.

The snake at the Aquarium is a green tree python. She spends a significant amount of time curled up on her branch, basking in the humid, tropical temperatures. She starts her life as a different color entirely and becomes a brilliant green color as an adult.

If you encounter a snake, you should give them space, but there is no reason to harm it.

PIRANHAS 

The piranha’s negative reputation can be traced back to Theodore Roosevelt. He witnessed a staged feeding frenzy of starved piranhas on a trip to South America and wrote about the experience. More than 120 years later, these fish are still working against that tale. The 1978 movie Piranha showcasing a piranha hunting humans refueled the hype, as it showcased piranha hunting humans.

In reality, humans are not part of a piranha’s food chain. Many piranha feed on smaller fish species, and some are omnivores, eating both meat and plant material. In the scientific community, they are described as timid scavengers. Piranha group together for safety to protect themselves from their own predators, like large birds.

The piranha at the Aquarium are red-bellied piranha. They can be admired for their shiny scales. They are an important part of their ecosystems in freshwater rivers of South America. Piranha should be more appreciated than feared.

SHARKS 

Sharks are often portrayed as villains in movies. Jaws, Sharknado, The Shallows, The Meg and even The Little Mermaid portray sharks in a negative light. While some sharks are large, and some do have sharp teeth, there is way more to appreciate about sharks than to fear.

Sharks are apex predators. At the top of the food chain, they play a crucial role in keeping the ocean ecosystems in balance, but humans are not part of the menu. There are more than 400 species of sharks and they eat a variety of different types of foods, with the largest whale sharks eating krill, and the smallest dwarf lantern catching tiny prey with an alluring bioluminescent light.

The sharks at the Aquarium are sandtiger, sandbar and nurse sharks. A fan favorite of Aquarium guests, it can be quite calming to watch them swim slowly through the water.

You are more likely to be struck by lightning, fall off a cliff taking a selfie, or be killed by a lawnmower, than be attacked by a shark. Sharks should be revered rather than feared.

–Education 

Announcing the Rare Births of Weedy Sea Dragons

Greater Cleveland Aquarium is proud to announce the arrival of newborn weedy sea dragons, a species that has proven to be exceedingly difficult to rear. Since the first successful weedy sea dragon hatching in 2001 at the Aquarium of the Pacific, fewer than 20 facilities worldwide have had any level of success with mating and only an estimated dozen of those have had fry survive.

A delicate species whose survival has been tested by habitat degradation, weedy sea dragons are native to the cold coastal waters of south and west Australia.
“Weedy sea dragon births are exceedingly rare, and this would be a point of pride for any animal care facility, but it’s a particularly exciting for an aquarium of our size and age,” says General Manager Stephanie White, who has been with the downtown Cleveland destination since it opened a decade ago in January of 2012.

Greater Cleveland Aquarium is housed in a brick building dating back to 1892, and Curator Ray Popik believes the creativity required to reimagine the historic space contributed to his team’s success breeding sea dragons. “We were able to home the sea dragons in a very deep exhibit built into a structure that likely served as an air duct or a coal chute when this building was an operational powerhouse,” says Popik, explaining, “Its depth provided an optimal habitat for the seahorse relatives who court with an elaborate vertical dance.”

After a female weedy lays her eggs, they are transferred to the male who, similar to its pipefish cousins, is then responsible for fertilizing and carrying them until they hatch. “This was actually the second time one of the female sea dragons in our care deposited eggs on a male’s tail,” says Popik.

While the initial egg transfer in January of 2020 was likely too early in the Aquarium residents’ development to result in viable offspring, the initial mating and successful deposit was an indication that the sea dragons—who came to the Aquarium in March 2018—were thriving. “Animals need to be healthy, have good nutrition and be acclimated to mate,” explains Popik. “We felt the odds they would try again were good.”

A second mating attempt in September of 2021 resulted in another clutch of eggs and fry popping out between late-October and the beginning of November. The hatchlings were moved behind-the-scenes. “There’s no parental involvement after birth and it’s incredible that any of these tiny offspring survive when they’re left to fend for themselves in the ocean,” says Mallory Haskell, the primary aquarist responsible for their monitoring and delicate care. Not particularly strong swimmers, weedy sea dragons’ leaf-like appendages blend in with kelp and seagrass help hide them from predators.

Greater Cleveland Aquarium plans to put some of the young on public view soon in a temporary exhibit just down the corridor from the adult weedy sea dragons. “It’s been amazing to watch these animals develop and we want to give that opportunity to others if we’re able,” says White.

The process has been full of ups and downs, but Haskell is optimistic. “If raising weedy sea dragons was easy, everyone would do it,” she says. “We know there are challenges ahead, but we hope we will see a number of these sea dragons reach full size in a year or so.”

5 Things I Learned about the Green Tree Python (Morelia viridis)

When mature, green tree pythons spend a lot of time in trees, often resting their diamond-shaped heads over one or two coils they’ve looped over branches to create a saddle. Here are five other facts about these arboreal snakes:

  1. Green tree pythons start life bright yellow, red or reddish-brown, and don’t become the vibrant green color you see here until they are 6-12 months old.
  2. Their prehensile tail is helpful for climbing and anchoring them in trees. They’ll also drop it down and wiggle the tip, using it as a lure to attract curious prey.
  3. Speaking of hunting, in addition to good eyesight, green tree pythons have thermoreceptive pits in their upper lip area that let them sense the body heat of their prey.
  4. Green tree pythons can wrap themselves around their prey and squeeze them to suffocation. They can then swallow that prey hole.
  5. Green tree pythons are solitary except during mating. A female can produce a clutch of 5-35 eggs, coiling around them and using “muscular shivers” to regulate their temperature.

There’s a lot more to learn about this nonvenomous snake that can be found in Indonesia, New Guinea and Cape York in Australia.  You can see this one in the Asia & Indonesia Gallery at the Greater Cleveland Aquarium. Nature. It’s a curious thing.

–  Samantha F.

5 Things I Learned about the Red-Bellied Piranha (Pygocentrus nattereri)

While they do have sharp teeth and very powerful jaws, contrary to popular belief the red-bellied piranha is quite docile. Here are 5 other facts about this misunderstood fish.

  1. These misunderstood fish can reach lengths of 8 inches long and weigh around 4 pounds.
  2. Red-bellied piranhas travel in groups for protection rather than to take down larger prey.
  3. Piranhas can make different vocalizations that sound like barking, grunting, croaking or the thudding of a drum. They use their swimbladder to make these sounds.
  4. Red-bellied piranha feed on whole small fish, insects and aquatic invertebrates and occasionally plant material and ripe fruit. At the Greater Cleveland Aquarium they eat an omnivorous diet, composed of a variety of items mixed in throughout the week. Things like prepared gel foods, pellets, occasional fresh fruit or veggies, krill and other shell fish and chopped up freshwater fish like minnows, smelt and trout, all make up a well-balanced diet.
  5. The red-bellied piranha is rarely seen in a frenzy unless they are extremely hungry and deprived. These fish get a vicious reputation in part because of some exaggerated claims made about them following one of Teddy Roosevelt’s expeditions to the Amazon. His guides showed him starving piranhas taking down a large animal in a short period of time. While the widely circulated story from the President’s trip might have made them legendary, it was a 1970s’ horror movie that confirmed people’s suspicions the piranha was a man-eating terror.

You can take a closer look at the red-bellied piranha along with other curious creatures in the Tropical Forest Gallery at the Greater Cleveland Aquarium. Nature. It’s a curious thing.

– Tyler H.

Spanning History: Main Avenue Bridge Recognized

On Wednesday, October 6, 2021, 82 years from the day when it was opened, the Main Avenue Bridge, also called the Main Avenue Viaduct, will receive a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark Designation from the Cleveland Section of the American Society of Civil Engineers. According to WEWS TV-5,  fewer than 230 projects in the United States have received this distinction.

Built in 1939 with funds allocated from the Public Works Administration, the Main Avenue Bridge was one of many bridges and structures built in Cleveland during the Great Depression as a way to spur economic growth. The span over the Cuyahoga River in the Flats originally featured a float bridge, but was replaced with a 200-foot hand-operated swing bridge in 1869. In 1938, plans to build a new bridge to alleviate the increased traffic driving into the city was introduced by joining the east portion of the Cleveland Memorial Shoreway (named for the local veterans of World War II) to the west side span that extended to Edgewater Park. The eastern portion was originally built in 1936 to access the Great Lakes Exposition, which extended from E. 9th Street to E. 55th. It was the largest project of the Works Project Administration in the country.

When the bridge was completed, it held the record for the longest elevated structure in Ohio (with a length of 8000 feet) until 2007. The initial construction of the bridge, from 1938 to 1939, had workers use over 24,000 tons of steel and 55,000 cubic yards of concrete to build the cantilever truss crossing.

The structure is being given historic landmark status due to its use of continuous, haunched structural forms which offered greater structural efficiency and improved the aesthetics (the haunches are the vertical support structures under the roadway). It is also a significant example of a deck cantilever structure, which means that a structural member is positioned below the joists to support the weight of the frame. The lakefront ramp includes a plate girder span that holds the record at 271 feet and the overpasses at West 28th Street contain some of the first welded rigid frames. The construction represented a significant engineering achievement of the time.

In 1986, the bridge was renamed the Harold H. Burton Memorial Bridge in honor of the man who served as mayor during its construction and in 2007, the signature blue paint was added to keep the steel portions from deteriorating.

See an album of historic Cleveland bridges here. More details on the dedication ceremony can be found here.

– Neda S.

5 Things I Learned about Vietnamese Mossy Frogs

Native to North Vietnam, these mossy frogs live in flooded caves and in the banks of rocky mountain streams. A semi-aquatic species, they spend a significant amount of time submerged with only their eyes poking out over the surface of the water.

Sometimes it can be a challenge to spot the Vietnamese mossy frogs in Greater Cleveland Aquarium’s Asia & Indonesia Gallery. They only grow to be 2.5 to 3.5 inches and they’re flat and wide when resting. Wart-like bumps and green-and-ruddy brown skin give them a moss-like appearance and let them blend with their habitat.

Not only are they masters of camouflage, but they’re also masters of misdirection. Vietnamese mossy frogs can make their voices seem like they are coming for 10 to 13 feet away so predators cannot pinpoint their locations.

Vietnamese mossy frogs have sticky toe discs that help them climb trees and cling to rocky surfaces.

Even with excellent camouflage, climbing abilities and ventriloquist-level vocal skills, predators sometimes track down mossy frogs. When threatened by tree-dwelling mammals or snakes, Vietnamese mossy frogs will curl into a ball.

Next time you visit, see if you can spot the mossy frogs blending in with their surroundings. Nature. It’s curious thing.

  • Samantha F.