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What It's Like to Be an Aquarist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium

Aquarists care for animals living in aquariums—here's what it takes to become one
By Travis Marshall | Published On June 25, 2024
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What It's Like to Be an Aquarist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium

Varga interacts with aquarium visitors while behind the glass.

Monterey Bay Aquarium/Jonelle Verdugo

Scuba diving is an integral part of Christy Varga’s job as a senior aquarist and marine life collector at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in Central California. Some days, Varga suits up and slips into the kelp forest exhibit to swim alongside the swell sharks, giant sea bass and garibaldi. Other days, they’re piloting a boat to the submerged seamounts of Carmel to search for marine life in the wild.

Varga’s daily responsibilities focus on caring for the aquarium’s flora and fauna, along with maintaining all the systems that keep them healthy. “We feed the animals, we clean the tanks, we siphon water and we scrub lots and lots of algae,” Varga says. “But we also do plumbing and electrical work. We design the exhibits so that they look natural. We monitor the health of our animals and give them medications if needed. And scuba diving is a huge part of all of that.”

In addition to all the diving Varga does inside the aquarium, they are also a certified scientific diver—an essential skill set for collecting the marine life that goes into the exhibits.

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“One unique thing about the Monterey Aquarium is we have no fake algae in our exhibits, so that alone requires a lot of collecting,” Varga says. “We go out on tide pool trips every month when there’s a good low tide, and we have two Boston Whalers on our back deck that we drop into the water to go out diving.”

The aquarium has collection permits issued by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife that specify how many specimens can be collected and the methods used.

The majority of collecting trips are to gather things like algae, bryozoans and sponges, along with juvenile fish at certain times of the year.

On rare occasions, however, they also get opportunities to collect larger species like the ones found in the iconic Open Sea exhibit. “We don’t actually use scuba when we’re collecting larger pelagic fish like tuna or mahi mahi,” Varga explains. “Sometimes we go down south to San Diego and charter a commercial fishing vessel—of course, we use barbless hooks and handle the fish as little as possible to protect them.”

Varga’s journey to a career working with marine life began with a childhood visit to SeaWorld, and an introductory scuba class while studying at university. Varga completed two internships: one involving eelgrass and bay scallop restoration in Rhode Island, and another at the Maritime Aquarium in Connecticut.

From there, Varga became dive safety officer at the Sea Life Aquarium in Legoland California, leading presentation dives using a full-face mask to interact with guests, before moving to Monterey.

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Varga says that a background in a field like marine biology can be helpful in getting a job as an aquarist and collector, but it’s not a requirement. Any aquarium experience, even working at a pet store, can help lay the foundation, along with dive certifications through rescue diver.

One of the most rewarding aspects of the job, according to Varga, is the opportunity to connect with the public and inspire the next generation to conserve the ocean.

“Things like hand-feeding eagle rays and high-fiving kids on the other side of the glass are definitely career highlights for me,” they say. “If I had the option to just sit in a tank all day playing rock, paper, scissors with the kids, that would be awesome!”


Degree: Bachelor’s degree in marine biology, aquaculture, environmental science or related, or experience working with aquariums

Salary: $35,000–$50,000/year

Certifications: PADI Rescue Diver and American Academy of Underwater Sciences (AAUS) Scientific Diver