What's the protocol for when the power goes out at the aquarium? And do you have advice of what to do to keep fish (and filter bacteria!) alive if the power goes out? :)
Okay, staff at the aquarium actually get questions like this frequently from visitors. This is because visitors are often quite shocked to realize that many of the animals they saw during childhood visits are still there, in spite of Hurricane Sandy and all the damage it brought to the Jersey shore. They start asking about how we weathered the storm.
The truth is, we have major plans in place for handling any emergency or power outage. This is how the aquarium staff (at the time of Sandy, I was still just a volunteer!) did so well. By having plans in place and reviewing them, it greatly helps with most issues.
Minor power outages or rolling brownouts are a common enough occurrence during the worst of summer heatwaves or storms, no matter where you live NJ. While modern upgrades and redundancies to the power grid has removed much of the risk of significant power loss, it can happen.
To deal with minor losses, we have a few hidden treasures tucked away. While the building has emergency lighting to assist with human navigation, every free-standing exhibit has a flashlight or lantern tucked underneath. Why? Well, every extra bit of light is important to help us pathetic humans navigate in the dark. We employees and volunteers know our aquarium and the terrain pretty well, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be hazardous in the dark. This means helping everyone get around safely to a secure area or possibly exiting the building if external conditions warrant is priority 1.
These lights are also crucial for our sharks and their tank mates.
Successfully keeping larger sharks with fish requires working with their
natural tendencies. Sharks tend to be more active with hunting at night. One of
the biggest tricks to keeping sharks in aquaria is making sure they have a
nightlight. It need not be bright enough to disturb, just bright enough to
prevent them from getting into that hunting behavior and starting to look at
their tank mates as a possible snack. So, a big job is specifically ensuring
that there are lights on our sharks.
Side note : I picture this whenever we talk about power outages and shining flashlights for the sharks. I’ve never experienced a power outage at work, but I have a feeling this will be me if it happens while I’m around the sharks.
In addition to hidden flashlights, each and every free-standing exhibit has a hidden emergency kit underneath including a battery operated air pump, line, and stone. If the power outage will continue longer than a minor inconvenience, these little battery operated pumps can be set up to keep some circulation and surface disturbance in the exhibits.
This plan for dealing with minor outages is only as good as our prior preparation. So, these pumps and flashlights are frequently checked to ensure that everything is in working order and that they all have good batteries. We have a cache of batteries in our lab, as well as a huge tote of spares.
If a power outage looks like it is going to persist for longer than a few hours, then we have a bit of a challenge on our hands. Temperatures on smaller exhibits (especially terrestrial ectotherms) may begin to slide, and prolonged stagnation of water through filter media may cause the beneficial bacteria to consume all available oxygen (and die). The aquarium has generators on hand for this very emergency. We may not be able to operate ALL life support systems, but our generators can handle ensuring that critical systems are functioning.
Where it gets interesting is our water quality monitoring. In our day to day operations, the aquarium alternates between two systems from Hach and YSI. These are both battery operated, handheld devices with internal lighting that we can use to go from tank to tank and monitor for temperature, dissolved oxygen, salinity, and pH (on the YSI). As we test, the data is displayed on the device in use and is also stored for later retrieval. So, although I need a computer to upload data and make our pretty spreadsheets for logging purposes, I could still easily go around and ensure that each tank is sitting within a reasonable range for general parameters.
Our aquarium has two levels, and our upper level has been known to turn into “tent-city” when a prolonged outage is expected (or a significant storm). Staff has camped out there and spent the night to ensure that nothing goes awry. I am told, however, that the seals make bad roommates (they can be active and noisy at night, apparently!).
We also put in a ton of prep work if we suspect an event will cause us to lose power, such as a hurricane or other major weather event. This may include things like setting up the generators, putting pumps into place, etc. By being ready in advance of the power going out, we’ve already done much of the hard work. I also like to think it gets us in the right mindset for when the power does go out, no different than having a fire drill.
Okay, I think this is long enough for one post. I’m going to make a second one for home hobbyists dealing with power loss.