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Aquarium naturalist makes a aplash during whale watches

America’s only whale feeding sanctuary is just 25 miles offshore from Boston at Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary.

There, humpback, finback, and minke whales gather to dine on masses of schooling fish. As a naturalist on the New England Aquarium whale watches, Melissa Rocha, 26, often sees the same whales on a daily basis, easily identifying especially the acrobatic humpback whales, which have a unique black and white pattern on the underside of their tales.

“It’s amazing when we are able to see whales so close to the boat,” said Rocha, who sails from downtown Boston two or three times daily on board a custom built whale watch vessel, along with a boat full of passengers. With the boat’s captain, Debbie Ridings, Rocha answers guests’ questions and provides insight on the behavior, life cycle, and migration of the whales, dolphins, and sea birds seen on the trip.

But it isn’t always calm seas and the majesty of nature; in her pocket, Rocha keeps gloves, crackers, and bags when it gets a little too bumpy for the inevitable seasick passenger.

“Inevitably, the people who say, “I never get seasick are the first to get nauseous,” said Rocha, who says her job also entails making sure the computer and sound system are working, checking camera batteries, taking photos of injured or sick animals, and notifying marine agencies of any wound sightings.

There’s a bit of meteorology work, as well: “In the morning, I check the buoys to gauge the wave height. I mentally prepare myself and the passengers, especially if it’s a rough day. It might be beautiful and sunny here but the seas could be three feet out there,” said Rocha. “The whales could care less, of course.”

Rocha began volunteering at the Aquarium 10 years ago, after being captivated as a child by a stranded sea turtle that was being rehabilitated in a tank.

“I thought, ‘I want to help that turtle,’” said Rocha. “I thought it would be so cool to be able to touch and feed her.”

While earning her degree in veterinary technology, Rocha volunteered in the fish department, helping to feed all the fish, cleaning their tanks, and assisting the aquarist as well as doing a few trips on the whale watch boat. Today, she’s still passionate about the opportunity to work with animals.

“Even though I spend countless hours watching whales, at least once a week I am still in awe that I get paid to do what I love and can share that with so many people, especially young children interested in working with the ocean,” said Rocha.

Q: You must get your share of intelligent questions, as well as quirky ones. What sort of unusual questions do people ask you as a naturalist?
A:
Sometimes people are fascinated to find out that whales are mammals; many still think of them as fish. At least once a year, I get asked, “What lake are we on?” And often, when we leave at high tide, and come back at low tide, someone will say, “Where did all the water go?”

Q: If someone is interested in working with animals, as you do, where can they begin?
A:
The best way is to start volunteering, whether it’s at the Aquarium, or a local kennel to walk dogs. If you like horses, find a barn and clean stalls, or maybe work at a pet shelter. Look for opportunities at zoos, farms, and nature centers.

Q: You mentioned working with sick fish. What is that like?
A:
I help the vets do surgical procedures, give shots if the fish need them or help run blood tests for patients in the tank. If the fish are not eating, we might try different foods; if a small fish normally eats frozen food, for example, we give live brine instead to spark the appetite.

Q: As an animal lover, do you have a lot of pets?
A:
I have a dog and a cat, and two Solomon Island skinks, or lizards, who used to live at the Aquarium. One is named Joe’s Girlfriend, because the lizard really liked this aquarium worker named Joe, and the other is called Hermes.

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