There’s nothing like seeing a kid who, two seconds before, was recoiling in disgust work up the gumption to reach out a tentative hand and touch the snake reclining on your arm. Usually their reaction is either one of relief (whew—I made it out safely, now I can check that off my list of dangers to face), or one of surprise (wow—it isn’t slimy!).
Reversing the stigmas associated with reptiles and boosting the courage of a child is all in a day’s work for a volunteer at the South Carolina Aquarium, and out of all the “duties” assigned by my volunteer coordinator, it’s definitely one of my favorites. I have been volunteering at the South Carolina Aquarium for about a year and half now, every other Saturday afternoon. Typically I spread my time between supervising the touch tank, manning various education stations, showing off one of twenty or so non-venomous snakes, or simply wandering through the galleries to answer any questions guests might have.
Having people skills is a must for the job, because you have to be able to gauge your audience, taking into account age, attention span, level of zoological knowledge, and preexisting biases towards the critters in your care as you engage guests in conversation and share facts and environmental principles with them. Generally speaking, four year olds just want to know that the sea star isn’t going to bite them, whereas you can blow the mind of a ten year old boy when you explain that the sea star actually turns its stomach inside out to digest a clam.
Preexisting biases can sometimes be hard to deal with tactfully, especially when a visitor slides past you and the snake, making some ungenerous announcement to everyone within earshot such as, “The only good snake is a dead snake.” It can be hard to convince a person that the object of all their childhood fears, exacerbated by cultural myth and the media, is actually a helpful and necessary part of the local ecology. But then again, some of my own subconscious assumptions have been challenged. I’ll never forget the time a huge, bearded motorcycle rider—leather, tats, and all—gently picked up a sea star in the touch tank and tenderly held it under the water, remarking with what can only be described as wonder in relation to how cool it was. One of my other favorite touch tank moments was when I asked a young girl what the sea star felt like, and she replied without skipping a beat, “Like a star… stars live in the sky!” Adorable.
Besides the honor of sharing the natural world with others, volunteering with the Aquarium has some other great perks. Their reward system includes a free membership after 50 hours of volunteering, 20% off in the gift shop, and invitations to social events at the Aquarium. If you stick to the same shift, you also get to know your coordinator and fellow volunteers as friends. And, of course, you get to see the animals all the time and share in their lives in a way a one-time visitor can’t. I love checking in on my particular favorites—the octopus and the slipper lobster.
The Aquarium employs a large host of volunteers, and not just in the education department—the animal husbandry staff is assisted by volunteers, and volunteer divers perform educational shows in the 385,000 gallon Great Ocean Tank. If your interest has been piqued, and you want to learn more about opportunities to help out at the Aquarium, visit their website to learn more. To volunteer by yourself, you must be 16 or older; teenagers ages 13-15 can co-volunteer with their parents.
And if you’re ever there just visiting, be sure to talk to a person in a blue collared shirt—we love our Aquarium and can’t wait to share it with you!
Lauren's name means “A crown of laurel leaves,” which is what the ancient Greeks used to give the poets they wanted to honor. Perhaps that's why she loves to write. She also loves to sing Taylor Swift a little too loudly, paint, collect insects, laugh at what God’s doing in her life, and take care of her chameleon. She moved to Charleston because she was always cold and needed a warmer climate. She loves all this city has to offer—the history, the art, the romance, and, of course, the water!