Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Home Crew Members Miss Doing Their Chores

Good memories keep them going
Home Crew hard at work in the PTMSC aquarium. Photo by staff.

I know people who get great satisfaction from scrubbing floors, keeping windows spotless, and doing other house-cleaning tasks. I’ve never been one of them.

So imagine my surprise to learn that there are people who eagerly volunteer to do such chores. On early morning shifts, no less. And that they’ve sorely missed accomplishing these tidying tasks during Washington state’s Stay Home, Stay Healthy shutdown.

These dedicated cleaners are the 16 or so members of the Home Crew at the Port Townsend Marine Science Center’s Aquarium. Before the coronavirus COVID-19 outbreak, a team of seven to nine people would arrive every week at the aquarium doors on Monday and Friday mornings. They worked a two-hour shift each session, performing an average of eight shifts per month for a grand total of about 112 hours of work per month.

The Home Crew cleaners don long-cuffed rubber gloves to protect themselves from the cold of the salt water, which is drawn from Puget Sound with minimal filtering.

“Since all of the water inflow comes directly from below, if the sea is very rough or at super low tides the tanks can get quite silty,” says Janette Mestre, a relative newcomer to the job who joined the Home Crew team in the autumn of 2019. “We scrub interior tank walls of algae, vacuum crud off the bottom and in the water column, and remove build up of algae, kelp debris, creature waste, and silt from the tank floor and rocks.”

Jan North takes a quick break to appreciate her work in home crew. Staff photo.

Dana Africa, who has been on the Home Crew for about five years, said they get to know the inhabitants of the tanks and, as they clean, they also inspect the animals and note any injuries, whether a female is gravid, and other health changes.

“People are generally assigned a tank," Africa says. "It may not be the same tank every week, but people tend to do the same ones.”

Dana Africa, home crew volunteer. Staff photo.
Dealing with leaks, low water levels, overflows, and fouled siphon tubes can be tricky and extra time-consuming.

Much of the crew’s work involves removing layers of algae, which grows especially abundantly in the summer sun, by scrubbing and scraping the interior of acrylic tanks. But acrylic scratches easily, and the scratches can impair the view into the tank.

“Trying to get an old, well-established algae rim formed at the bottom edge of tanks off the acrylic without scratching it” is Africa’s least-favorite job.

On the other hand, she loves siphoning, the technique used to “vacuum” debris out of the sand and gravel in the bottom of the tanks.

"Siphoning is so satisfying! I most miss the mornings I come in to clean and feed the abalone babies," she says. "I’m in a separate space, and as I siphon there is a calming sensation in me. My thoughts run to all sorts of places I don’t usually take time to explore. Abalone are strange little people — I adore their tenacity and fabulous shells.”

The work of the Home Crew is not entirely without stress.

“We have a very popular unusual little fish, the grunt sculpin, and while we now have two, for a long time there was just one, and they’re quite elusive and hard to capture," says Mestre. "After seeing it in the tank [I was siphoning] and then not finding it after finishing, I spent a very nervous weekend thinking I had sucked it up without seeing it. Happily it reappeared from it’s hiding place by Monday!”

But Home Crew work also has its rewards.

“One morning there were eight of us all diligently cleaning when someone said, ‘Look! Eleanora [the giant Pacific octopus that lived in the central tank for much of 2018] is out of her hideout!’" Africa recalls. Within a minute all of us circled her tank as she displayed all of her spectacular moves. She went the full circle so everyone got a show and some eye contact. All chores were forgotten as we, as one, were completely blown away.”

Katherine Jensen (left) & Betty Petrie. Staff photo.
“Getting to constantly learn new things and become more aware of the local marine environment is a pleasure," Mestre says. "And the excitement of the staff for what they’re doing is infectious,” Janette adds. “I miss just being there, seeing the constant changes in tank dynamics, and the camaraderie of the crew.

"I have been really impressed by the quality of the facility and exhibits for a small nonprofit like this," she adds. "They do a huge job with what they have available, and I think it must be quite difficult to maintain everything and keep all the animals healthy with the skeleton crew.”

When pandemic conditions allow it, both volunteers plan to return to their tasks.

“I definitely plan to resume at the MSC. Can’t wait,” Africa says. “I’m ready to get excited about things again.”

Since the pandemic began, all the work usually done by the Home Crew has fallen largely to Aquarium Curator Ali Redman, with backup from AmeriCorps Member Marley Loomis. We’ll check in with them soon.

Written by PTMSC Volunteer Jenna Kinghorn.

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