There aren’t many days when I get called to referee a turtle stand off before lunchtime, but working at the Sea Life Centre in Brighton isn’t any ordinary job. I’ve been asked to join the Sea Life team for a day, helping care for the animals and finding out more about life behind the scenes of the world’s oldest aquarium.

Constructed in 1872, by famous engineer Eugenius Birch, designer of Brighton’s West Pier, the Italianate building was built at the same time as Madeira Drive and Brighton’s famous promenade. Over the years, it has been used for many different purposes; including a theatre and ballroom, which featured in the film Quadrophenia and during the Second World War as an RAF station.

Exhibits in the interwar years included a chimpanzees’ tea party and a ‘real live half-woman half-mermaid’ attraction. This freakshow-style of zookeeping is a long way from today’s Sea Life Centre, which houses a serious research facility, various breeding programs and carefully thought-out displays which ensure that the fish and animals kept there are stimulated and comfortable.


I’m spending the day with Aquarist, Kerry Perkins, but before I’m allowed near any of the animals, I’m given a mountain of health and safety paperwork to read through and sign. I’ve been worrying about the sharks, but it turns out that it’s the foxface rabbitfish that I need to keep an eye on. Kerry is eminently qualified with a Masters in Marine Science and she clearly loves the hands-on nature of her job and the opportunity to interact with the animals on a daily basis.

Our first task is to put the finishing touches to a tank display for a new octopus arriving tomorrow, from Weymouth’s Sealife Centre, where there is an extensive quarantine facility. Even so, Sea Life Brighton has its own back-of-house area where several new arrivals are being observed before joining the main tanks. Often Sea Life Centres will receive animals from less specialist marine keepers or animals which have grown too large for a domestic tank. The twelve Sea Life Centres & Sanctuaries in the UK have an important role to play in providing a rehabilitation and refuge service for aquatic pets and sea creatures who may be unable to survive in the wild.

We’re in the middle of scrubbing down the tank, filling it with stimulating toys (octopuses prefer Lego apparently) and weighting down the lid to prevent any heroic octopus escape attempts, when we are called to the small turtle tank to break up the turtle stand off. Charlie, a new snake-neck turtle, who arrived a few days ago, is being stared at by some mud turtles.Kerry wades straight in and distracts the gang of old hand turtles with one hand and collects Charlie with the other. Resettled in a new tank, Charlie is soon bathing happily and getting to know his new friends.

We return to our octopus display which is being refilled with seawater pumped directly from the sea outside into a huge reservoir under the centre. “The water quality along this part of the coast is excellent,” Kerry tells me. “We do very little to it as we draw it in from under the sand, which acts as a natural filter and removes particles. We do have to monitor the salinity and the temperature. But the crystal-clear water quality you see in the tanks here is all natural and that makes it better for the animals because a lot of the beneficial micro-bacteria and nutrients are still in it.”

Onto our second task and it’s not glamorous. Wearing huge waders, we perch precariously above a huge tank of carp, digging out an ornamental pond which has started to stagnate. Because we are all wearing distinctive blue Sealife t-shirts, the carp swarm towards us whenever we get near the water. Indeed, all day long, as I pass the various tanks, I am a fish magnet. Associating blue t-shirt-wearers with food, the fish come to the front of the tanks hopefully, whenever someone wearing blue gets close to them.

After our exertions, Kerry suggests a swim to cool off, but with a difference. Our next job is to remove some algae in the main tank and she means the big one with sharks in it. I’m kind of expecting to stand on the side holding a pole or something, but there is a wetsuit waiting for me and my very own scrubbing brush. I’m busy worrying about the sharks, but it turns out that it’s the ray with its stinging barb and the turtle with its jaws that can bite clean through a person’s arm that we need to watch out for. Suited up, we slip into the water and stand on the roof of the famous underwater tunnel.

The two people in the tunnel below us clearly think we’re mad, but actually it’s kind of relaxing. We move along the top of the tunnel, scrubbing gently and letting the fish get used to us. Dotty the zebra shark is Kerry’s favourite and indeed she’s very friendly. She keeps nudging us gently with her nose as we work, looking for attention and after I’ve got my head round the concept of a ‘friendly shark’, I give her a stroke the next time she brushes against my legs.

Jersey, the 65 year-old loggerhead turtle glides past my elbow and a jaws-alike sandbar shark takes a close interest in us too, but it’s all very amicable and I’m astonished to find that I don’t want to get out of the water when we’ve finished our tour.

For Kerry, it’s just another day at work, but it’s clearly her passion too. In fact, the care and attention taken by every member of the team at Sea Life is impressive – no question is too trivial; no detail to small to attend to. Before I turn in my blue shirt, I take a final peek at my new friend, Dotty the zebra shark. I never thought I say it, but I’ve fallen in love with a fish.

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