Monday, February 21, 2011

From Space Odyssey to Office Space

Behold, the water tight gate!

Today I realized that my job is essentially just like some of the best movies on the planet.

Deep cleaning habitats is an undertaking all zoological personnel (be it professional or amateur) must endure.  It is a crucial task to keep the animals who live in said habitats comfortable and healthy.  As we all know, some habitat cleaning is not as messy as others.  Cleaning a cat litter box is featherweight cleaning; scooping elephant poop like my dear friends Maura and Matt is on the "OMGGGGG" end of the spectrum.  

Nonetheless, whether we have adopted pets or work as animal care professionals, we find ourselves performing tasks that are mildly hazardous, disgusting, tedious, and/or physical demanding so that we can maintain a healthy and happy animal family.

In the dolphin training world, we don't have to worry about cleaning dolphin poo up in the way essentially every other zookeeper or pet owner has to.  One of the most charming aspects of dolphins aside from their intelligence and cute looks is the fact that their, ahem, "output" dissipates into a cloud and is usually filtered out quickly from the water.  

The biggest villain in the dolphin training world is Algae of all types.  All forms of algae are the cockroaches of the Protist* world in that algae never dies.  I am convinced that a perfectly clean pool filled with nothing but mercury could host seven different species of algae when exposed to sunlight for approximately 9 seconds.

Luckily, a little algae in a habitat is no problem. Algae is merely "seaweed" and so is not as a) disgusting and unhygienic  and b) gross-looking  as a cockroach.  However, if left untouched in a manmade habitat (not a natural lagoon with its own natural tidal filtration), it will grow into a wild meadow of seaweed that can trap the more solid pieces of dolphin poop that would normally be taken up into filters.   Trainers have to stay ahead of the algae before it grows its long tendrils.

See how the algae laughs at us!

In some cases, it is necessary to drain habitats to blast the little algae jerks right off of their feet with a pressure washer. 

Recently, I had the pleasure of helping deep clean all of our dolphin habitats. In the case of the facility by which I am currently employed, we must drop 300lb metal bulkheads (herein referred to as "water tight gates") into gate channels that separate the dolphin habitats from one another.  Once all water tights are in place, our dedicated Life Support Staff (super heroes, really) can safely drain the water out of the pool and we can begin a dirty but fun job of erasing budding algae off of the walls in quick fashion.

I should also note that no, of course the dolphins aren't in the empty habitats.  They are safely in water-filled habitats, making sure we don't break anything as we clean one of their rooms.  And they never tip.

After our pressure washing adventures have ended and we fill the pool back up, there is the great task of  removing the water tight gates.  They are 300 pounds and in the water.  Sometimes, we need to wedge them in the gate channels with crowbars.  It requires at least ten wait, let me correct that: four very strong (and/or stubborn) men, and six girls to lift and install or remove the gates. 

In the case of the water tight gates near our med pool (the magical pool with a floor that can be raised to the surface of the pool), we can lift the floor up high enough to aid us in pulling up water tight gates straight up, resting for a second, then tilting the gate until it looks like a tabletop that the ten of us can carry to its appropriate storage place.

So today as I was looking at us lifting the first water tight gate straight up out of the gate channel, I was suddenly struck by the image of the Great Monolith in the opening scene of the incredible Stanley Kubrick gem 2001: A Space Odyssey

Mysterious Monolith or Water Tight?
As the trainers, burly maintenance guys, and life support crew look onto the Great Water Tight Gate as it towers towards the sky, we ponder the potential of it blowing over in the wind, squishing all of us beneath its massive weight.  There are no dolphins around for it to smush, but plenty of us bipedal apes are at its mercy.

Once we have seen our Death By Water Tight run through our terrified minds, we all begin to reach our arms and hands skyward to receive the gate as it is tilted towards us in the tabletop fashion described above.   Kind of like this:

Here, the trainers receive the water tight gate as it is lowered into the "tabletop" position.  Ooo ooo ah ahhhhh!
As it is lowered into position, we are reminded of the magic of weight distribution.  It whisks us momentarily to junior high slumber party games of "light as a feather, stiff as a board".  For mere minutes, the water tight becomes an ethereal object of little to no weight.  The relief that none of us resembles Flat Stanley after the removal of said gate floods over us as we move the gate to its final resting place.  Or rather, until we need it again in four months for more deep cleaning.

So is that it?  Of course not.  Recall what happened to the apes at the Monolith. It made them violent and irrational creatures.

As the trainers perilously remove the remaining water tight gates, they become increasingly uptight.  They are understandably frightened of the Potential Smash that all water tight gate removal/installment risk.  

All of this nervous energy has to go somewhere.  Luckily, this energy is directed to the next Space Odyssey parallel at my job.


Here is a picture of our Computer:

 Wait, did you see it?  Did you look closely enough?  Why don't you look more closely this time?

Our computer, HAL 9000.  HAL has a mind of his own.  He is intelligent, he is cunning.  He doesn't work for anyone but himself. 

Trainers use this computer to send daily updates of the dolphins' activities that day.  They use it to read important emails from bosses.  They use it to make sure they know how many people will participate in interactive programs. 

We can be guaranteed at least 38 Blue Screens of Death, 52 random computer restarts, and one rather lovely rendition of "Daisy Bell" before we are allowed to check our email.

So at the end of today, as we finished our Water Tight Removal Task, we found ourselves yet again in the role of the Enraged Ape in Space Odyssey.  While we left the computer in tact, we certainly had this running through our mind as we read once more about the Physical Memory Dump, and Failed Logins:

This will be me beating you, HAL.  One day....

HAL 9000 will one day meet his demise.  And on that day, our dolphin training lives will cross from Space Odyssey to the next best Space in the film industry:

I'll keep you posted.
Kingdom Protista: "Protists":  Tiny little organisms that can be one-celled or many-celled.  They have to have some kind of water-based environment to live in be it marine or freshwater.  They can grow in any place where there is water, such as locker room floors. 


  1. I was actually trying to figure out what it reminded me of today when you were all taking the Water Tights out... now I know! But from a "guest" perspective and I quote .. "Wow those girls are strong, how much do they weigh?" "Probably about 300lbs" "I am impressed"

  2. Loved this post. Thanks for the information and the hilarious pictures!

  3. The HAL 9000 part made me laugh out loud, causing the dogs to startle and become afraid.

  4. I am jealous of your algae-scrubbing, water tight-lifting life.


    (PS: I have a sick fascination with power washers and just how shiny-clean stuff gets when you use them...)

  5. Here's a tip: Use baking soda to remove odours from the garbage disposal.

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  7. Unbelievable job mates, I enjoy going through your articles.
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