Confessions of a shark nanny: 'They are my babies'

Confessions of a shark nanny: 'They are my babies'

Like an expectant mother, she hovered over the babies until they were born.

It took six months of patient monitoring before she joyously welcomed the little ones into the world.

The babies in question? Zebra sharks.

Miss Amanda Leong Suk Teng, 26, is an aquarist at the Marine Life Park at Resorts World Sentosa.

Her affinity with the zebra sharks has earned her the moniker "shark nanny" among her peers.

Her charges were first found as egg cases attached to rocks in the main shark habitat last year.

And because zebra sharks "do not give parental care" to the eggs, she took over as their guardian and protector.

When they hatched in August last year, Miss Leong says she felt like a first-time mother.

"I felt so proud. I had been obsessing over the eggs for six months, from yolk to foetus.

"It is like seeing your own child for the first time. They are my babies," she says, beaming with pride.

Like a parent, she regularly takes baby pictures of each shark to chart their growth, as if she were making a baby journal.

"It is not easy to care for them. The water needs to be at very specific oxygen levels and temperature for them to thrive," says Miss Leong.

The six zebra sharks, currently around 40cm long, will grow up to around 2.5m in length if all goes well.

Even though they might nip when she feeds them pieces of prawn and tuna, she describes it as a perk of the job which she enjoys immensely.

The aquarist of three years was once a chemistry teacher.

"I got tired of kids, with so many different attitudes and personalities to deal with.

"Sharks are better," she says, chuckling.

Besides caring for the zebra sharks, her job requires her to swim with the other sharks in the main shark habitat to feed and inspect them.

Covered from head to toe in chain mail, you might mistake her for a mediaeval warrior.

SPECIAL SUIT

It is a special suit made for diving with sharks at the Marine Life Park, says Miss Leong.

"Oh, you will need that when you are in the water with more than a hundred sharks."

She has found herself in the middle of a feeding frenzy as all manner of marine life rush towards her as soon as she enters the water with the feed.

There are 130 sharks in the Shark Seas exhibit, including hammerheads, sandbar and silvertip sharks.

But thanks to the extra caution by her team of aquarists and the chain mail suit, she has never been hurt before.

"People have this idea that the sharks here are man-eaters. They are aggressive, but they are actually pretty conditioned to us being there.

"They do nibble my dive mask sometimes. It is their way of saying, 'I'm hungry'," she says.

She confesses that she was once a fan of shark's fin soup, often eating them at Chinese banquet dinners.

That stopped soon after she started working at the aquarium and came into contact with sharks for the first time.

And she has had to defend her job from critics who say that keeping sharks in captivity is bad for them.

Says Miss Leong: "They are actually treated better (than they would be if they were in the wild), with more food and people to fuss over them.

"We exhibit these animals to educate the public, who would otherwise not be able to understand and appreciate them."

But her greatest critics so far were her parents, who were initially worried that the job was too dangerous and physically demanding for her.

"The turning point was when they saw me diving with the sharks for the first time. They started telling others, 'That's our daughter'," she says.

And yes, she gets upset when sharks go to their happy hunting grounds beyond.

"It is a fact that sharks get diseases, fall sick and grow old. Some die.

"Emotionally, we will all get affected because we see them every day."

SECRETS OF THE TRADE

1 While feeding, always be on the lookout for abnormalities in the behaviour of each fish and shark. You never know when it could be a serious condition that could lead to their death.

2 Exercise regularly to keep fit. Carrying heavy loads is part and parcel of the job. A pail of fish feed can weigh up to 20kg, and the scuba gear and chain mail suit is even heavier.

3 To be an aquarist at the Marine Life Park, you need a Padi Rescue Diver qualification at the minimum. Experience in biology or related fields is highly preferred.


This article was first published on February 8, 2015.
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