The planet's coolest jobs: octopus keeper

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Alicia scuba-diving to tend to a giant octopus © Monterey Bay Aquarium

The deep ocean contains many secrets, most of which we'll probably never know. What we do know though, is that swimming, gliding and floating beneath the water's surface are some of the coolest creatures in the animal kingdom, sporting tentacles, antennae, suckers and countless other weird and wonderful things. Imagine if you got to spend time with these animals, up-close-and-personal, and learn how they exist in their submerged world...

Alicia Bitondo is a cephalopod aquarist at California's Monterey Bay Aquarium, and spends her days at work looking after different creatures of the deep. What's it like to do Alicia's job? Let's dive in...

What are cephalopods?

Cephalopods – including octopus, squid, cuttlefish and nautilus – are a type of mollusc. This group of invertebrates also includes snails, clams and mussels. Cephalopods are much more advanced than their slow cousins, and have evolved to be smart, fast, and very successful predators. The earliest cephalopods had shells like the nautilus, which has been around for 500 million years! As new types of cephalopods evolved, the octopus, squid and cuttlefish lost their outer shell.

What kind of creatures do you work with?

I work with octopuses, squid, cuttlefish and nautilus from all over the world. These range from the giant pacific octopus, which can weigh over 100lbs, to the pygmy squid, which barely reaches an inch in length!

What sort of things do you do in your day-to-day job?

My mornings are spent checking our life support equipment, cleaning the exhibits and making sure they are optimised for the creatures to live in, and assessing the animals before the aquarium opens to the public. The rest of the day is a combination of feeding our animals, cleaning tanks, maintaining our eggs and hatchling cultures, and keeping an eye on the water quality. Of course, animals will always surprise you, and unforeseen projects come up all the time. My job also involves scuba-diving, both in the aquarium exhibits to clean, and out in the ocean collecting animals or algae.

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Alicia works with octopuses of all sizes © Monterey Bay Aquarium

Describe your job in five words

Raising squid to delight people!

What's the most challenging thing about working with cephalopods?

The most unique and challenging thing about working with cephalopods is that they have short lifespans. We have now figured out how to breed some of them in our laboratory so that we don’t have to continue to collect animals from the wild, which will help us study and learn about them.

How did you become a cephalopod aquarist?

I’ve always wanted to work with marine animals, and so I studied marine biology, learnt to scuba-dive, and got my first aquarist internship after college. I’ve worked at three different aquariums and the cephalopods were always my favorite. Most aquariums only display a few different types, but the Monterey Bay Aquarium decided to open an all-cephalopod exhibit. As part of that team, I was able to work with many different types of squid, octopuses, cuttlefish and nautilus.

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The tiny two-spot octopus, one of the creatures in Alicia's care © Monterey Bay Aquarium

What advice would you give someone who dreams of getting a job like yours?

Studying the sciences and obtaining a degree is an essential step to becoming any kind of scientist. I would also recommend getting hands-on experience as early as possible. Whether you’re working as a lab technician, veterinary assistant, volunteering at a zoo or aquarium, animal handling experience of any kind is valuable. Scuba-diving and boat handling are also great skills to develop if you want to succeed as an aquarist!

What's the coolest thing about your job?

I love that I get to interact with animals every day, but what makes working at an aquarium even cooler is that we get to display these animals to the public. My job involves not only taking care of the animals, but also maintaining a natural environment in their exhibits so that people can get a glimpse of what they look like in the wild. We help inspire people to be more interested in the future of our ocean.

Keen to meet more underwater creatures? Explore the ocean's weirdest inhabitants with our new book, World's Strangest Ocean Beasts.

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