Alright, so I have a question for you. At my facility we have penguins, sea lions, sharks, sea turtles and all the other razzmatazz. Yet even then our earliest shift starts at 7:30 in the morning, and sometimes even later than that (switches to 8:30 sometimes) Now I realise Seaworld is a TON bigger than the place I work at, but is there any specific reason your guys fish prep shifts start so early, or do you just have so much fish you need to get started so early to get it all out in time?
OH BOY HOWDY is this gonna ever be the loooooongest response you never wanted. My department (Animal Care) has a hand in preparing and delivering the fish to every single marine mammal area in the park whether we work with those animals directly or not. There are two early-early shifts. The Wild Arctic food prep shift which starts at 4AM, and the North Food Prep (NFP) shift that begins even earlier. Wild Arctic has a big enough freezer to stockpile food for about a week. The other mammal areas do not have big freezers of their own, so they rely on things to be delivered from the main Zoological Operations Commissary. The following includes only food prep for the marine mammals who specifically eat fish. The manatees have their own lettuce cooler.
For the NFP shift, two or three Animal Care staffers arrive at the main commissary at 3:00AM, sometimes 2:30 if there are manatee calves who need fed around the clock. These two or three people will handle an average of 3000lbs of fish during the shift. There are medical procedures to be done in the morning, and first training sessions and feeds often start as early as 7:00AM. So, this all has to be done and over with as fast as humanly possible. It’s a lot of fish, dudes. I’ll use capelin as an example. Right now we are thawing 62 boxes (flats) of capelin which are 22lbs each. This does not include the still-frozen boxes delivered to Whale and Dolphin Theater and Sea Lion and Otter Stadium. It’s a lot, and that’s JUST the capelin.
When you first arrive at the shift, probably yawning and maybe momentarily questioning your life choices, you immediately begin the “break out”. Which is the process of pulling out the racks of fish from the cooler that’s been thawing for 24hrs and getting all of the still-actually-very-frozen fish into the sinks to begin the water thaw. While it’s thawing, you wash the racks and scrub the floor of the cooler. The boxes the fish were packed in are flattened and taken to the recycling center at some point during the deliveries.
Next, we grab the pallet jack and go into the freezer to get the pallets of fish boxes (we call them flats…because they are sort of flat I guess?) that were made by the shift the day before. It’s about -20ºF in there, and windy from the blowers, and you’re probably already wet. So it feels…nice. You wheel the whole pallet into the kitchen and load up the racks for the next day and push them all back into the cooler. Rinse and repeat. There are two pallets worth that need to go on the racks each day.
Tired? LOL TOO BAD! Next, you drain the water from the sinks and start bucketing the fish. While one person is weighing out individual diets for the animals we specifically care for (like the otters and dolphins in the back area and Dolphin Nursery) the other person is loading up buckets which are clustered in rows based on where they’ve gotta go. We have a big board that tells us who needs what and how many buckets go where, but generally we count out stacks of buckets the day before so the poor tired 3AM person doesn’t have to brain too much. We do 30# buckets of capelin and 25# buckets of herring. We do this by feel so we don’t have to sit there and weigh each one. AIN’T NOBODY GOT TIME FOR THAT. Generally you use a 5gal bucket to scoop the fish out and then pour it into the buckets on the floor. Picture the motion of quickly flipping a bucket when making a sand castle. The buckets of fish are then iced and loaded up onto a truck with a flat metal bed and delivered to the stadiums. There, the trainers weigh out individual diets using what we brought.
At some point, you or your compadre may have ducked out to bottle feed any baby manatees before coming back into The Battle.
The dolphin stadium does not get any thawed fish. There’s a pallet in our freezer (again, sorted the day before) of frozen boxes for them. We load that up in either a golf cart or the truck depending on preference and deliver the frozen flats to them. They leave the empty rack out for us and we load it and push it into their cooler for them. That’s the stuff they’ll be using the NEXT day as they’ve got the stuff in the cooler we brought the day before that’s been thawing for 24hrs. They have a big enough kitchen that they can do the thaw themselves.
The sea lion stadium shares a kitchen and cooler with the pacific point habitat. They get half and half thawed buckets and frozen flats. They have their own pallet in the freezer, too.
Shamu gets an Imperial buttload of thawed fish in buckets…It’s in the ballpark of 1000lbs a day. We drive it over there and the Night Watch Trainer helps us unload and then they immediately begin weighing out the killer whales’ individual diets. We then drive off into the…shit it’s nowhere near sunrise yet.
Dolphin Cove gets thawed buckets delivered as well. This used to be an Animal Care area from 1996-2015 until Training took over.
We also make up one random 10lbs bucket of capelin for aviculture. This is used for any fish-eating birds they have in rehabilitation.
Exhausted? Suck it up, buttercup! It’s time to CLEAN ALL THE THINGS! So now you clean the commissary A.K.A. “Fish House” because it looks like it’s been hit by a scaly, fishy tornado. Better not leave even a single herring scale stuck to any of the surfaces in there!
At this point, it’s about 6:00AM. We do all that in 3 HOURS. You gotta MOVE, man. This is not a slow, sleepy activity. It’s like the most hardcore thing some fitness coach could ever imagine, but more smelly and with weirder weights. The dude who does Insanity would have a proud tear in his eye.
If you are lucky, you will now have time to take a shower. Pray there is time, because you’ve probably got fish gak all over you, herring scales stuck all over any exposed skin, and fishy water and herring blood down your boots. You smell so bad that your own mother would question her love for you.
If you try extra hard, you might be able to scrub away 80% of the stench of an entire Gloucester commercial fishing port from your body and maybe cram a protein bar into your face before it’s time for the first round of feeds and/or any morning medical procedures or animal moves that are scheduled. The dolphins need breakfast and require prompt and friendly service or they’ll blast you on Yelp. So have fun getting that already-wet body into your wetsuit! Do the dance. DO IT! Maybe take a moment to admire the giant bucket bruises on your legs. These come from the bucket rims repeatedly hitting you in the same place on your thighs as you carry them. You earned them summabitches and you should be proud.
At some point during your shift (you’re there until 11:30 or 12:30 depending, it’s a long day) you gotta bundle up and go into the freezer to “make pallets”. Basically building fish flat pallets to be used in this same process the next day. If you’ve been keeping track, this means that between breakout, re-filling the cooler racks, and making up pallets for the next day you and your co-worker(s) have basically lifted and thrown around 3000lbs of fish THREE TIMES.
You can then go home and eat WHATEVER THE GODDAMN HELL YOU WANT in whatever quantity you want and God help anyone who tries to judge you for it.