Career Story: Penguin Keeper

01/02/2021
Natalie Mallory

Here at Merlin Entertainments our delightful staff are the key to providing memorable experiences for every one of our adventurers. That’s why each and every role at one of our fabulous parks and attractions must be filled by the crème de la crème. So to prove we have the best staff, we’ll be interviewing our team members to find out just how they create those unforgettable magical Merlin moments.

This week we spoke to the delightful Tish Hannan, the Displays Department Supervisor at SEA LIFE Sydney Aquarium... in other words the woman in charge of the penguins!

What does a normal working day look like for you?

Steven the Peguin

If there was such a thing as a normal day looking after animals it would probably look a little like this: First thing in the morning we check all the penguins, this includes all the sub antarctic King and Gentoo penguins in the Penguin Expedition exhibit and our adorable Little Penguin colony as well. We then clean both exhibits which takes around 3 hours with a team of 5 people, it includes hosing all the dirty ice, scrubbing all the walls/floors/anything we can reach and bringing in between 2 - 4 tonnes of fresh ice every day. The rest of the day is spent feeding the birds and cleaning our back of house spaces, we are absolute clean freaks as all of our birds were hatched in human care and have had little exposure to the germs of the world so we try keeping these to a minimum inside the facility. I get to oversee both colonies so get to divide my time between sand and snow chickens. 

And what's your favourite thing about what you do?

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It changes every day but currently my favourite part about my role is the volunteer work we get to do with NSW National Parks and Wildlife service. – recently we had a day where a group of us went to a site to redevelop the area for the Little Penguins of Manly to use! This is the colony of mainland Little Penguins left in NSW so it’s such important work and could really make a difference for them. It mostly involves a lot of weeding and planting and very little to actually do with penguins but it’s extremely satisfying to see the site before and afterwards!

How important is your role? What would happen if you're role didn't exist?

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My role is extremely important. Most people do not get the opportunity to view these stunning animals in wild and it is difficult for people to understand the effects they directly have on the environment and the little changes they can make to be able to make it better for the penguins and all other species. Being able to view these amazing creatures here at SEA LIFE gives people the opportunity to see them The main role of an aquarium is education for the public but also the staff of the conservation needs of the animals we look after and it my job to make sure that message is being delivered to the best of my ability. SEA LIFE Sydney has been in social science studies which show that after a visit to an aquarium people feel more connected and want to find out what they can do to help the wild counterparts of the animals they see.  

And what's the biggest challenge in your role?

Something no one told me when I started this career path in aquariums was that you not only need to be a great animal keeper and educator, but you also need to be a plumber, a mechanic, a facilities manager, a people manager, an SOP writer, a health and safety officer, a problem solver above and below the water, a penguin mother on call at all times of the night for the little ones and time folder to fit that all in. I love it though and all the different aspects of the role. 

What are penguins like to work with? and do you have a favourite penguin?

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The Gentoos are by far the cheekiest and always need to be involved with whatever we are doing, whether that be cleaning the windows, shovelling the snow or dive cleaning the tank. The King penguins are far more regal and like to keep to themselves, until the moment you have food and then they are all over you with no regard for personal space. I really don’t like picking a favourite penguin cause they all have their own little quirks –Lara our chick from last year is pretty up there with my favourite bunch though, she’s a very special bird and doesn’t quite know how to penguin yet so it’s very amusing to watch her fumble her way through the colony. I also had to hatch her out of the egg after she failed to do so herself so she’s kind of like my special baby.

I'm very curious - do penguins ever misbehave?

The penguins constantly misbehave, they never do exactly what we ask them… Marmalade is always doing hilarious antics, it’s currently breeding season for our Gentoo penguins and she’s constantly flirting with everyone… my entire phone memory is effectively taken up with ridiculous penguin photos of some bird doing something it shouldn’t be.

What qualificaitons do you have and how did you start your career?

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I have a bachelors degree in biology, specifically genetics and evolution so super related to penguins. I spent a year in Paris as a tour guide after I finished university in New Zealand because I didn’t want to join the real world just yet and when I got back to NZ I got very lucky with getting a penguin keeper role at Kelly Tarlton’s. I’ve always wanted to work with animals and have had MANY pets across my life, at one point to the dismay of my parents I had about 120 animals in and around our property so penguin keeper seemed like a good fit! When Sydney aquarium announced they were starting a new penguin exhibit I knew I wanted to be involved so move across the ditch to a step up in my career and a new opportunity. Since being at Sydney I have had the opportunity to run not only the penguin teams but also the Dugong and parts of the Aquarist team as well which has been a huge help to diversify my skill set.

What's the best thing about working for Merlin?

I think the best thing about working for Merlin is it gives you so many opportunities to further your career in so many different countries. I’m one of those people that loves experiencing new places and it’s great to know that I can work for a company that would support moving me around.

If you could work with any other animal, what would it be?

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Porcupine fish, they are amazing and I would love to be involved with a training program for them.

And lastly, could you give us an interesting fact about penguins?

I got so many weird facts about penguins… The best one is probably that penguins can see into the UV light spectrum which means they see the world differently to us – I always find this fascinating and constantly wonder what they are actually seeing.

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