The Other Camden... The One with the Hippos

By Julia Pierce | Aug 20, 2020

With many friends entrenched in job hunting due to COVID-related lay-offs, I got to thinking about some of the bizarre things I’ve done in the past to bring home the bacon.

Notably, in 2005 I accepted the job of Chief Experience Officer at the new Adventure Aquarium in Camden, New Jersey. To the delight of my parents (who were living in Camden, Maine at the time), Camden, New Jersey was just ranked as the nation’s most dangerous city... for the second year in a row.

I did not find this statistic off-putting. I was in my mid-20s. I was living on my own in Center City, Philadelphia. I worked at a Children’s Museum for a few years. I felt bulletproof.

I also concocted a totally solid plan for getting to my job at the aquarium: I walked a dozen blocks across downtown Philly in the wee hours of the morning to the subway station and took a train across the Delaware River into Camden.

I would then use my Razor scooter to glide the remaining 0.6 miles from the Camden City Hall Station to the aquarium. Yes, Razor scooters are those skateboard things with handlebars that fourth graders ride because they aren’t quite ready for a proper skateboard. They are also made of metal, and I had fantastically heroic visions of how I might club an assailant with said scooter if necessary.

My day started with co-hosting a pep rally of sorts for front line staff. Prior to this, my only experience motivating people in a job setting was at the aforementioned Children’s Museum. I was convinced that my tried-and-true strategies to ramp up three-year-olds would naturally translate to inspire adults.

As if it wasn’t challenging enough to get people excited for an eight-hour shift of box-office ticketing, I hosted these sessions in front of a movie-screen-sized window into a 760,000 gallon fish tank. In all honesty, I just couldn’t compete with the giant tuna.

My morning routine also included a “sweep” of the entire aquarium. It was my job to make sure that everything looked ship shape before opening to the public. It never got old to say, “good morning” to the octopus and the penguins and the sloth (not sure why the aquarium had a sloth).

If I was lucky, I would be present for the moment that the aquarium’s two Nile hippos were released from their overnight holding areas. Imagine 3,000-pound Rubenesque beauties frantically scrambling out of their pens in a thunderous race to the water. The thrill of this moment cannot be rivaled.

Not even by the sharks—and there were a lot of sharks. Sharks you could swim with. Sharks you could pet. This place wasn’t messing around. (Side note: The Adventure Aquarium currently has the largest collection of sharks on the East Coast.) And yes, I can say that I tickled a shark at least five times a week... just because I could.

A major part of my job was scripting and directing “edu-tainment” shows. My previous experience of putting on silly outfits to do story times with pre-schoolers might not have been adequate preparation for this level of responsibility. The aquarium had thousands of visitors a day—over a million people in the first year. I had to wow them all.

More precisely, I had to manage the people who did the actual wowing. I supervised a small troupe of actors who clearly accepted the job because making a living as a full-time stage actor is not really a thing. Motivating this crew was daunting. I mean, who wouldn’t want to wear a sweaty, giant hippo costume?

For me, this was one of those fake-it-‘til-you-make-it jobs. Ultimately, I did make it. Sure, I had to wear the hippo costume several times myself, but I ended up creating some truly unique experiences for visitors.

I recently re-read some of the scripts. There was some crazy stuff in them. I had one unyieldingly intense character that would approach visitors and try to convince them that the Adventure Aquarium was in cahoots with the Scottish government to give the Loch Ness Monster asylum. My writing was a like delicate blend of National Geographic and Saturday Night Live.

Why would I ever leave? The misery of riding a scooter in the snow and rain started to wear on me. I also learned that I felt way more comfortable (happy, fulfilled) working in a museum or a library than I did writing flashy shows about penguins.

I only stayed at the aquarium for a year. It wasn’t my calling, but I’m glad I did it.

These are absurdly challenging times. Sudden career changes may indeed give you whip lash. My advice is this: go for the weird job.

You might just get to tickle a shark.

Julia Pierce is the Programs Coordinator for the Camden Public Library. She lives in Camden with her husband and their rowdy twin sons.

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