Career Story: Wibke Jansen - Dive & Displays Manager

Natalie Mallory

Here at Merlin, it’s always a pleasure to put dedicated staff members into the spotlight. This week we’ll be speaking to The Bear Grylls Adventure’s very own Wibke Jansen - Displays & Dive Manager. With a 5-year long career us, first at SEA LIFE and then The Bear Grylls Adventure, Wibke has played a vital role in animal welfare, guest experience, and education.

Wibke, you’ve worked for us for 5 years, but where did your passion for marine life first start?

I cannot remember a time when I was not passionate about animals and especially the marine world. There is something magical about water. Almost everyone likes to go to the beach or to a lake etc. to relax and fuel up on energy. When you see what lies underneath, it is just breath taking. The beauty of the underwater world astonishes me every time I go diving or snorkelling or simply swimming.  Diving in places like the Great Barrier Reef or different places in the Philippines just show how magnificent this world is. 

What first brought you to Merlin Entertainments? 

After studying biology and economy in Germany, I decided to do my Masters in Marine Science at the James Cook University in Australia. I learnt a lot about marine animals and their behaviour and how to monitor and collect data and also how to turn this into actual meaningful data. From there, I worked in the Philippines for about 6 months in the Manta Ray fisheries, which is now banned. This step was incredibly important for me to learn about biology and especially anatomy of rays and sharks etc. But, also about culture and how best to approach conservation in countries like the Philippines. After the fisheries project there ended, I started working in an Aquarium in Germany for a while before making the move into Merlin in November 2015. My work at the Sea Life in Munich was a decision to move towards a company that has great values and supports conservation projects worldwide. During my 2.5 years in Munich, I learnt a lot about Life Support System/ Filtration to make sure the animals are always in the best possible environment. I was part of an Environmental Enrichment working group in Germany and made the Enrichment of the animals in Sea Life Munich one of my main priorities.

And what made you decide to move to The Bear Grylls Adventure?

After these very successful years at Sea Life Munich and the opportunity to develop my skillset and interests, I made the decision to take the next step in my career and develop new skills and gain more experiences at a different site. The Bear Grylls Adventure was the perfect place to start this journey, because I had the opportunity to be part of a team that was building a new Aquarium. We had to plan how we make sure our filtration system is to the highest standard and is ready and mature enough to be able to ensure the best water quality for our animals. We had to organise large animal deliveries, including Blacktip Reef Sharks from other Sea Life sites and a large fish delivery from Australia. We had to build a completely new team and find the most efficient and effective way to work together. It was a very challenging time, but helped my personal development immensely.

For anyone who doesn’t know, what’s your role all about?

As the Displays & Dive Manager I overlook the care and welfare for all animals on site at The Bear Grylls Adventure, which includes not only over 1000 animals in our Ocean Tank but also our selection of Invertebrates such as Tarantulas and Scorpions that are greeting our guests at the Entrance.

I’m also managing the Dive Operation and ensure that our Guests receive a magical dive or snorkel experience, while also ensuring the health and safety, as well as the welfare of the Instructors and Aquarists.

The Bear Grylls Adventure offers a unique experience for Guests without previous dive experience, to dive with tropical fish, stingrays and sharks. It is important that the two departments, displays and dive, work closely together to make sure our animals are happy and healthy and we can show guests the stunning beauty of the underwater world without any harm.

We offer a VIP Dive Experience that combines these two departments. Guests can book this as an out of hour activity, and get to join me or someone from my team on a feed dive, where they can watch the feeding of our larger fish and the stingrays and even get to feed some of the fish as well. After that dive they get a full Backstage Tour which shows all the areas the Aquarists are working in, including Food Prep and our Filtration System.

Which are your favourite creatures you’ve care for? Are there any big characters?

All the animals we care for here have different characters and are unique in their very own way. However, there are some that definitely standing out.

My favourite fish in the tank is Megatron. He is a Grouper and is a huge character. He has days when he follows us around the tank when we are diving to clean the tank, and he has days where he is just sitting in a corner and is grumpy. Megatron and me have a special bond and I am allowed to pet him like a dog on most dives. This is something very unique and I love him for that close connection.

I feel like everyone's favourite Blacktip Reef Shark is Luna, who has no sense of personal space. She has days where she is fascinated by the divers and keeps coming around to have a good look at them. When it comes to food Luna is very picky and prefers mackerel over saury, resulting into food being spit out if we dared to offer the wrong kind. She is definitely one of the bigger characters in the Oceanarium.

We also have a pair of Humphead Wrasse in our Aquarium. The male (Oscar) is usually lazy and just sits on the floor watching (and judging) everyone he can see. Angie, the female, however, loves to play at the large viewing window. We show her videos and play with pens and light etc. With her and she loves it.

There are so many more that I could describe, and I’m more than happy to do that for every guest that is interested.

Everyone will be asking this question… is it scary diving with Sharks?

Not at all. Our goal and reason for doing this kind of operation is to show as many people as we can how incredible sharks really are.

When people think about sharks, they always think about the sharks you see in movies such as Jaws and MEG. Sharks are more than that. We have three different species of sharks in our Oceanarium and they are all completely different. Our Nurse Shark, Monty, is usually sitting on the floor and stays away from the operation. Gigi, our Zeba Shark, varies between sitting on the floor (usually in the way, so people have to walk around her) and swimming around. She has days where she like to come and have a closer look at divers, especially during VIP Dives. And then we have the Blacktip Reef Sharks, that look more like the sharks that most people imagine. The body formed like a torpedo and they are constantly swimming. If Blacktip Reef Sharks would stop swimming they would eventually die, because they need the water to flow over their gills. Gigi and Monty can actively pump the water through the gills to breath which allows them to sit down on the floor. This is just one of many differences between all sorts of shark species. There are over 1000 species of sharks and rays worldwide and they are all different from each other.

All our sharks are very relaxed about the operation and usually mind their own business while divers are in the Tank. There is the occasional visit by Gigi or Luna (one of our Blacktip Reef Sharks) but generally the Sharks are not interested in us, especially not as food.

Sharks are incredibly important for the marine ecosystems, and to make sure we transport this message, we have a debrief for our guests after each dive to talk about threats for sharks and conservation efforts to safe them. We also give a donation to the Shark Trust with every ticket purchase. 

What do you think is the biggest threat(s) facing Marine life today?

Overfishing and pollution.

Overfishing is one of the threats that gets defended a lot by saying it is to feed the world. Sadly, this statement is only partly true, as a lot of the problems come from by-catch, which are animals that got caught in the nets and die but were not the targeted species. The other problem is that we are catching fish without knowing how many are actually out there. We do not set limits and are not catching fish at a sustainable rate. This means that we catch more fish than the species can reproduce at the same time. If we continue with this rate most species will be in serious trouble and face extinction in the near future. Sharks fisheries is much more common than a lot of people think. It is not only a problem for the species itself but for the entire ecosystem, if sharks were to disappear from our oceans. Humans will not be able to replace sharks in their important role in the ecosystem because we catch entire populations of fishes rather than just the injured, sick or least fit individual fishes like a shark would.

The other threat is pollution. And I am not only talking about plastic pollution, which is on everyone's mind, but also for example noise pollution from more and bigger ships all over our Oceans. It is also known that our Oceans are polluted via the rivers and streams that are bringing the chemicals that we use inland out into the oceans and distribute around the globe. Plastic pollution is a large part as well of course, but what many people don’t realise, is that a large proportion of the plastic pollution are so called “Ghost nets” that are dropped or lost by fishermen. By stopping overfishing we would reduce this pollution at the same time.

What can we do as individuals to help to protect our marine life?

Educate yourself is probably the single most effective way to protect marine life. Choose sustainable fish over the cheapest in the store, ask for the source in a fish and chips shop because a lot of times they offer “white fish” which is usually shark meat. Learn about fishing methods and which species is less likely to be threatened by fishing. But also educate yourself about the ecosystem as a whole and why each individual species is so important to protect the marine world. And maybe every now and then, make the choice to not eat fish or to not use single-use plastic but an alternative.

Experiences like ours where you get up close to the animals and actually learn about different species and the conservation efforts are a fun way to educate yourself. Take children to a Sea Life centre, not just to watch pretty fish but also to look at their habitat, their IUCN Red list for threatened species status in the wild and what are the threats to each species. Talk to members of staff to learn more about conservation projects around the world and then get involved.

What advice would you give to anyone wanting to join SEA LIFE or The Bear Grylls Adventure?

It is important to understand that the Aquarists role is a very diverse job. You are a chemist, a feeder, a cleaner, a vet and a scientist that collects all the data and put them into use. Gain experience by volunteering is always a helpful step.

In Sea Life you can join an entertainments team and ask questions to the aquarist team, here at The Bear Grylls Adventure we have many different teams with many different backgrounds, but we are always open to answer questions and educate or show people how we work and what we do if people are interested.

I would also advise to learn to dive for this job, as it can be beneficial, even if you work in a Sea Life rather than for us at The Bear Grylls Adventure, where diving is essential.

Follow pages on social media that are involved in conservation & education projects and read about different species and topics like filtration and water chemistry.

Once you are within Merlin, it is up to you, to work hard and develop your skills constantly and show people you have the capability for more. If Merlin has shown me anything, then that hard work and passion for what you do will benefit you and you can build a great career within this company all around the world.