It’s no coincidence that every time I go to talk with Athena Csuzdi she’s busily scrubbing down an Aquarium exhibit.
After all, as the Aquarium biologist responsible for the care of the tropical freshwater animals, it’s her job to ensure all of their exhibits are well looked after, even if that means taking a dip with the piranhas. Yes, piranhas.
Athena explains that the light above the piranha exhibit encourages algae growth, just as sunlight would in the wild. In order to clean the excess, she usually uses a wipe pad on an extendable pole, but has recently has found that it’s actually most efficient for her to get into the water. That way, “You get everything cleaned exactly how you want it.”
Athena only needs to wear a thin wetsuit because the water temperature is a balmy 26-27 Celsius. With a scrub pad in one hand and a suction cup in the other (to help her stay in place at the window), she takes a deep breath before heading in.
Athena says that minimizing stress on the animals is the most important thing, so she limits how often she goes into an exhibit, and she watches their behaviour the whole time she’s cleaning. She says that having been here for over six years works in her favour, “You just get very familiar with the animals in your section, which is really important for knowing their ‘personal space’ requirements.”
Piranhas are an iconic Amazonian species, best known for their sharp teeth and frenzied feeding behaviour. Although this behaviour may describe red piranhas (Pygocentrus nattereri) under extreme circumstances, Athena says the piranhas in the Amazon gallery – Sao Francisco piranhas (Pygocentrus piraya) – are not nearly as ferocious. Indeed, they kept to themselves the whole time she was in the exhibit.
Written by Karen Horak, writer-editor, content and digital experience at the Vancouver Aquarium.