Ryan Ross has always loved fish.
“I had my first aquarium when I was this high,” he said holding his hand just above the knee. “And before I went to college, my whole room was aquariums.”
Ross studied marine biology at East Stroudsburg University of Pennsylvania. He interned at the National Aquarium in Baltimore and started his career at a SeaWorld in Ohio that was acquired by Six Flags and then by Cedar Fair. The aquarium portion of the park was shut down, so Ross went to Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies in Gatlinburg, Tenn.
But what he always wanted was to move out West.
“And this was the first job I landed,” he said. “You never think you’re going to end up here in Las Vegas, but here I am. Almost 12 years later, here I am, and I still love it.”
Ross works as a curator at the Mermaid Aquarium at the Silverton, 3333 Blue Diamond Road. He said working as a marine biologist in the middle of the desert is more exciting than it sounds. Part of the fun is the variety. The 117,000-gallon aquarium is large enough to merit a full staff but small enough that there are only five full-time biologists caring for the fish and the facility.
“We have to do everything, whereas in a big aquarium, they have a life support staff strictly to do back washes and take care of pump maintenance and things of that nature,” Ross said. “We have to do it all. They have their own water chemistry staff, one person who does all the water chemistry. We have to do that. We kind of do everything.”
Everything from plumbing and pump maintenance to fish purchasing and pampering falls on Ross’ shoulders.
In addition to caring for the Mermaid Aquarium and the jellyfish tanks above the Mermaid Bar, Ross and his team care for all but the largest tank in Bass Pro Shops. The open pools with ducks, sturgeon and turtles present a unique challenge.
They have to trim the ducks’ flight feathers regularly, but “inevitably, their flight feathers grow back faster than we anticipate,” Ross said. “And we’re running through the casino with a net saying, ‘Excuse me, ma’am, did you see a duck just fly by?’ Or we stop at the blackjack table, ‘Did you see a duck come through here?’ ”
Once Ross said a duck flew between gambling patrons and into a restaurant where it was hiding under a table. Aquarium staff had to nab the escapee before casino guests could chase the duck outside.
Not all the action is out front; much of the work is behind the scenes where two levels are packed with pumps, filters, tanks, lights and more.
Twice a week, the water is filtered, purified and recycled 9,000 gallons at a time. Two 9,000-gallon basins beneath the floor hold the water between its cycles.
“Because we’re in the desert, we collect all of that water,” Ross said. “When the water first comes in here, it’s pretty nasty; it’s gross. But then we filter it and clean it up, and by tomorrow, it will be crystal clear.”
While new water is treated and added to the mix all the time, most of the water is recycled.
“The aquarium has been here 12 years now, and there’s only been one time where we’ve done a water change,” Ross said. “We’re constantly recycling the water.”
In addition to water treatment equipment, backstage is a temporary home for many fish. Every new fish brought in is quarantined for at least 45 days to guard against diseases or parasites. Other fish are brought back for treatment or observation when they seem ill.
And then there are the troublemakers.
“One unique thing about this aquarium is it’s not one region-specific. We have fish from all over the world that may never encounter each other in the wild,” Ross explained. “Our biggest issue is that because these animals don’t normally see each other in the wild, we get fish picking on fish. Believe it or not, our biggest problem is fish picking on the stingrays. So we’re constantly hauling out troublemakers and putting them in the back, shuffling the fish around to make the general population as healthy as possible.”
One little pufferfish troublemaker got the nickname Tyson when he tried to take a bite out of a mermaid’s ear. Her ear was fine, though.
Ross has a three-strikes policy with naughty fish. He’ll take them out, give them a timeout and put them back in. If they offend again, they’ll get one more shot. For many, that works. But there are always a few that refuse to obey the rules. Some are sold or traded with other aquariums.
“We never euthanize a fish for being a troublemaker,” Ross said. “In a worst-case scenario, they have to live out their life in a tank in the back, which isn’t as pretty as this, but we have to look out for the health of all of the animals.”
Pulling out any fish can be tricky.
“There’s nothing more humbling than trying to catch a healthy fish out of a 117,000-gallon aquarium. They can make us look pretty silly,” Ross said.
They’ve come up with methods to corral fish and catch them. Some, like the giant rays, have to be pulled out using the same winch and pulley system used to lower the mermaids. Then they’re transported in a giant water-filled cart. Ross said it takes a team to pull them out for annual checkups.
Safety is paramount at the aquarium, but accidents happen. Ross’ hands are lined with countless scars from shark and fish bites. It’s easy to get nibbled on when you’re force-feeding a shark who hasn’t been eating. Depending on the animal’s size, force-feedings are done with hemostats (surgical metal tongs). But the more common method is to make a milkshake-consistency slurry, administered with a tube down the fish’s throat.
Feeding time isn’t usually unpleasant. Ross said, most of the time, the fish are pampered.
“All the food we feed the stingrays and a lot of the other fish, it’s all restaurant quality — individually wrapped ahi tuna packets, mahi-mahi, shrimp, squid — they’re spoiled rotten,” he said. “They eat better than I do.”
Babying fish is part of the job, especially when it comes to the babies. Ross and his team are constantly on the lookout for baby sharks or shark eggs. They fish them out, raise them in the back, and when they’re big enough, they go back in the big tank.
They breed some fish intentionally.
“Those little black specks are baby clown fish,” Ross said, pointing them out in a breeding area in the back.
Jellyfish babies are little, too. “When they pop off, they’re the size of a pinhead,” Ross said. “They’re super, super small.”
Staff biologist Erin Galow talked as she sorted baby jellyfish by size to allow them more room to grow.
“Once they get big enough, I’ll move them downstairs to our big tanks above the Mermaid Bar,” she said.
Galow said working with Ross has been good.
“He’s great,” she said. “He’s been a really great boss. You can tell that this aquarium and all the animals here mean a lot to him. The way he shows us how to work and the work ethic that’s all around, it’s great.”
Ross’ work ethic doesn’t stop when he leaves the building around 5 p.m. He’s on call all the time. If a pump goes out, the system is programmed to give him a call.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s 2 in the morning, 3 in the morning,” he said. “You know how many times I’ve had to roll out of bed at 2 or 3 in the morning, come in and work on a pump?”
As the aquarium ages, things break. And it’s up to Ross to fix them. If it’s a big job, he can call in contractors, but for the most part, he takes care of everything, and he said he doesn’t mind.
“Most of the time, if you’d ask me, I’d say I want things to settle down and be a little boring for a while. It’s just so much all the time, things breaking, animals sick; you name it,” he said. “It keeps you busy, but I wouldn’t change a thing.”
Contact View contributing reporter Ginger Meurer at firstname.lastname@example.org. Find her on Twitter: @gingermmm.