We’ve reached a place in our blogger/blogee relationship where you get to learn a little something about me and it’s in the spirit of educating and saving lives. So, I begin a story that is 11 years old but I remember it as though it were yesterday. I’m scarred and I’m changed, but I can stay silent no longer.
I started college as a Marine Biology major. I got my open water diving certification at age 14 in the cold and murky lake waters of the Midwest. I began volunteer diving at my local zoo and working as an assistant aquarist to get experience in salt water, get some mileage out of my wetsuit, interact with the animals, do some water chemistry (everyone knows a girl well-versed in water chemistry is SEXY), and meet some new cool people.
I learned a lot while I worked at the zoo. For example, wear brown clothing if you want animals to approach you (they think you are zoo staff), water temperature, ammonia and pH are critical measures of water chemistry as are nitrates and nitrites. Sharks swim in regular patterns when in captivity and fresh water fish from the amazon like to rub up against you like affectionate little cats. Except fresh water amazon fish are huge, and slimy, and not cat-like in any other capacity so it’s actually pretty nasty. Southern Stingrays can be found as far North as Jersey and as far South as Brazil, and male seahorses give birth. My final lesson I learned the hard way: penguins are diabolical assholes and will try to kill you (and take your wallet) at the first opportunity. Penguins are blood-thirsty, angry, mutinous even, and I’m lucky to be alive after a thwarted murder conspiracy concocted in the summer of 2000.
Okay, so maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration, penguins are actually terrible pickpockets. Lacking thumbs and upward mobility they are pretty bad at lifting valuables off of people unnoticed. Oh, and did you know that in addition to mutinous plotting, they also bite? And they use their flippers as weapons too, beating furiously against opposition with appendages that feel like heavy handbags assaulting you from unseen directions in a spastic flurry of feathers and evil. And it doesn’t matter that the little monsters don’t have teeth, their beaks are strong and sharp. Imagine a pair of pliers clamping down on your forearm and twisting, it’s decidedly NOT awesome so teeth aren’t really necessary to do damage.
My job as an assistant aquarist was RAD (even though it was unpaid). Who doesn’t love feeding sharks baby squid for an afternoon snack or dipping your arm elbow deep in a bin of wriggling brine shrimp on a Sunday when everyone else is at the mall? I loved it. However, my first lesson at the aquarium was that where human beings are concerned, zoo politics exist and I was decidedly at the bottom of the totem pole. The bird handlers don’t necessarily fraternize with the aquarists… much. While occupying the same building, there is a dividing line that ends where the warm blooded mammals meet the things that have gills and fins. All things considered and being aligned with all things “fish, skate, sharks, and rays” I knew where my loyalties were aligned. So despite better judgment, I still hesitantly agreed to assist with the birds one morning when one of the handlers was out with the stomach flu. Getting into the yellow hip waders and heading out into the habitat, I was armed only with a bucket of smelly fish and a complete naiveté that would come back to bite me (penguin pliers beak bite) in the end.
I figured out almost immediately that penguins don’t like newcomers, and my being the newcomer I didn't know enough to keep my eyes on the penguins and my back to the water. Breaking both rules and standing chump-like near the water’s edge, an overzealous penguin waddled at the chance. With what can only be described as ninja like swiftness, the little bastard took my legs out from underneath me in one smooth motion sending me on a one-way trip headfirst into 40 degree, penguin-pee saturated water. Lucky for me, the body’s natural reaction to hitting cold water is to gasp (which is inhaling by the way) so I got a mouthful (and lungful) of the disgusting cesspool of penguin waste and my hip waders immediately filled and I sank in torpedo fashion ten feet straight down to the bottom.
More annoyed than in distress, I disentangled myself from the waders and kicked upwards to surface, coughing, hacking, and doing everything in my power to expel putrid water and penguin urine from my lungs. As the water kept coming… and in alarming quantities I was unable to express my feelings in a Henry Rollins style rant due to a lack of oxygen. Expecting to be met with concern or even assistance topside, I was instead met with the deafening roar of gratuitous laughter at my condition. Gasping desperately in between laughter fits one handler managed to instruct me to, “Make sure you get the hip waders from the bottom” as tears rolled down her cheeks at my misfortune.
Clinging to the edge, I collected myself. Once I was able to breathe again, I kicked back down into the cold water, waterlogged shoes, sweatshirts, pants and all again to retrieve the hip waders that sent me oh so rapidly to the bottom. Soggy waders in hand, I was pulled unceremoniously from the water and sat shivering, fully clothed, and humiliated in front of a captivated and beady-eyed penguin colony. My attacker hiding somewhere among them. I think they were smiling. That was my first and last day with the little fuckers.
My family was even less sensitive. After hours of mockery that day, they’ve spent years reminding me of that incident. I’ve been showered with penguin knick knacks and gifts of all kinds. Salt and pepper shakers, ornaments, crocheted pillows, t-shirts, and stuffed animals. I was gifted the movie Happy Feet (twice), the soundtrack to March of the Penguins, and countless numbers of emails with penguin .jpeg attachments and videos. The incident left me with a highly actualized case of PPTSD (Penguin Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). I believe I am the only case on file. And by file I mean a Post It Note affixed to my computer monitor. I’ve been traumatized so you could be warned about the true nature of these feathered a-holes. You’re welcome.