Life Aquatic

PUBLISHED: 11:15 20 July 2011 | UPDATED: 19:43 20 February 2013

The sharks are always popular with visitors

The sharks are always popular with visitors

Helen Stiles goes behind the scenes at Bournemouth's Oceanarium and meets it's newest and cutest residents

Helen Stiles goes behind the scenes at Bournemouths Oceanarium and meets its newest and cutest residents

Sarah Kerr must have the best job in Bournemouth. This vivacious 26-year-old, who hails from Florida, is Otter Keeper and Education Officer at Bournemouths Oceanarium. I joined her as she served breakfast to Bea and Buster, a pair of impossibly cute Oriental small-clawed otters who have just moved into the newly built Otter Oasis. Sarah, who studied Marine Biology in Florida before moving to Bournemouth to do a course in Marine and Coastal Management, told me about the Oceanariums newest residents. Buster, who is seven, and five-year-old Bea were both born in captivity and met at Newquay Zoo, hitting it off immediately. Otters mate for life so I suppose you could say they fell in love, she laughs. When they first arrived they werent used to having humans in their enclosure, so I would go in several times a day for short periods until they got used to me.

Their enclosure, which is completely soundproofed from the squeals of the delighted youngsters outside who are watching the pair chase each other in the water, boasts both a deep and shallow pool, stream, lush tree ferns and bamboo, rocky outcrops and a cosy undercover nest known as a holt. The enclosure has been built to accommodate a family because we hope that in time Bea and Buster will have their own offspring or be joined by other otters, adds Sarah.

Each morning at 8am, whist the furry young lovers snooze in their holt, Sarah dons waders and spotty wellies for the early morning poo pick-up and enclosure clean, removing muddy paw marks, smears and splashes from the glass. Then she gets their breakfast a couple of tasty young chicks. The down is good for their digestion, she says, adding that the otters eat up to 20% of their body weight a day thats around a kilo of mince and locally caught trout and crayfish.

At 10.30am Sarah gets ready to do the first otter feed for the public. Watching her in action is impressive. Through her headset, she tells the public about Oriental small-clawed otters while wrangling her two lively charges with a broom and a target-training stick with a rubber ball on the end. Every time they touch their nose to the ball they get a bit of food, she explains. This isnt just for show, this is so we can teach them to go into their holt or crate on command for a medical check or in an emergency. Training also keeps them enriched and their minds active. I notice Buster is pretty keen on attacking the broom. Oriental small-clawed otters are very territorial. Some days Buster isnt too bothered, other days he lets me know whose house and area it is in no uncertain terms!

To keep the otters entertained, Sarah and her team have dreamed up all sorts of things for them to play with. It can be as simple as introducing a new piece of wood to explore or well put a couple of hanging baskets together, stuffed with hay and food for them to jump on and pull apart. Well also pull the bedding out of their holt so they can re-nest, something they would do naturally in the wild.

With headset on she tells the public about Oriental small-clawed otters whilst she wrangles her two lively charges with a broom and target-training stick

As the two otters dive into the pool chasing bits of fish and impressing the crowds with their acrobatics, you can see that they are already a big hit, both with the public and their keeper. I want to cuddle them so bad, confesses Sarah, but these are wild animals so a stuffed otter from the shop will have to do instead!

After feeding her charges we go on a tour to meet the less cuddly residents, some of which have been donated by the public or rescued. This is especially true of the enormous catfish in the Amazon exhibit. The public buy them in pet shops or over the internet. They have no idea that a catfish, a hand span in size, will rapidly grow to the size of a family dog, Sarah reveals. Weve even got a blacktip reef shark that a father bought over the internet for his daughter. Sadly there is very little legislation in place to stop things like this happening.

In the main tank, cruising amongst the blacktip reef shark, are a pair of green sea turtles Friday and Crusoe. They beached themselves in Cornwall some 15 years ago when very young, so returning them to the wild wasnt an option. They were taken to Torquay Aquarium but when that shut down they came to Bournemouth. They are now a very healthy and happy 25 years old, weighing in at an impressive 25 stone. Friday is quite cheeky. When we are in the tanks cleaning he will try and nip our bottoms, says Sarah. He also has a thing about the colour yellow. If a school party turn up in hi-vis jackets he goes crazy and will be right up at the window looking at the kids. Crusoe on the other hand is very laid back and loves a back scratch, Sarah says with a smile. She tells me that they are the only herbivorous sea turtles and enjoy a diet that includes cabbage, apple, carrots and peppers. They love carrot and will fight over it, she laughs.

In the Florida tank is a stars and stripes puffer fish called Obama. He is a real personality and will always come up and say hi!

A more recent arrival is Harry the Pacific octopus, and he has a fan in Sarah. Hes a good three metres tentacle to tentacle and is gorgeous. Octopus are very intelligent and can easily get bored in captivity, so we make sure he has plenty to keep him busy. In his tank, rather incongruously, is a childs brightly coloured plastic toy on a string. This, Sarah tells me, is one of Harrys favourite toys. We had a university student doing a study of what toys Harry preferred natural things like rocks or logs or colourful kids toys. The kids toys won hands down! They also have a puzzle cube for him to crack and get a food reward and jars filled with tasty morsels for him to unscrew. But best of all is that he changes colour and texture depending on his mood. After hes fed he goes purple and spiky! All I saw of Harry that day was one very long tentacle wrapped protectively around his toy!

Another star is Pam, the small but friendly puffer fish, who comes bustling up to the glass to say hello as we pass by. So, out of the 250 different species in the Oceanarium, who is Sarahs favourite other than Bea and Buster? Well, the Florida tank is very dear to my own heart and in there is a stars and stripes puffer fish called Obama. He will always come up and say hi!

Be an Aquarist for a Day
This is a unique opportunity to experience a day behind the scenes at Bournemouths Oceanarium alongside the Aquarist team and learn about the wonderful creatures that live there. Youll help with the morning checks and exhibit maintenance, the feed prep, feeding the stingray/octopus/sharks, get involved with the turtle enrichment and help with the animal health checks. Cost: adults 75, children (12-16 years) with accompanying adult 100. To book call 01202 311993 (ext 25) or

Work Experience
Sarah started her career at the Oceanarium with a work experience placement. There are a limited number of work experience placements each year. Applicants must be over the age of 16, undertaking a marine biology or animal welfare related course or with previous active involvement in these areas through volunteering or employment. Send an up-to-date CV, details of the dates you are looking for and covering letter to: Oliver Buttling, Oceanarium, Pier Approach, Bournemouth, BH2 5AA or e-mail

Fact Box
The Oceanairum is open daily from 10am all year except Christmas Day. Currently, last admission is 5pm, closing at 6pm. Closing times vary with the seasons, so check before visiting. Buy tickets online and save up to 25% on standard admission, visit

10.30am: otters
11am: Amazon
12 noon: stingrays
12.30pm: Abyss
1pm: otters
2pm: sharks or turtles
2.30pm: Key West
3pm: stingrays
4pm: turtles

Oceanarium, Pier Approach,
West Beach, Bournemouth, BH2 5AA.
01202 311993

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