Darien intern at Maritime Aquarium

At Maritime Aquarium: College student gets no pay, but plenty of experience

Before she'd get a chance to enjoy her own lunch Tuesday, Emilie Geissinger had a host of tasks to complete.

They started in the food preparation room of Norwalk's Maritime Aquarium. There, the 700 herring and capelin fish she helped sort and weigh were bound for the mouths of otters and seals.

Then, she headed outside to a giant bird cage stretching along the banks of the Norwalk River. Inside, she pulled a baseball cap low over her head, found a spot near some low-hanging branches and scooped up a plastic tray of nectar.

Soon, a rainbow-colored lorikeet -- a small parrot, native to the South Pacific, but numbering more than 50 in this particular cage -- landed on her shoulder, eying the sugary drink. Then came a second. Then came a third, plopping straight on her head.

More Information
Emilie Geissinger
Age: 21
Hometown: Darien
Studying: Marine ecology at Bates College
Actual source of summer income: Lifeguarding
Doesn't flinch when she hears a fifth-grader say: "It's like my grandma used to say: 'Birds are like flying poop cannons.' "

Before long, the 21-year-old had six lorikeets perched on various parts of her upper body.

This, apparently, made for an inviting sight -- and for a whole other sort of task.

"I'm a friend to animals, too," said 7-year-old Sean Tagariello, stepping closer and outstretching his arm.

Geissinger eased herself lower. One of the birds hopped over to Sean.

"I can tell," Geissinger said. "These birds have a way of knowing."

Nationwide, two out of three college students will at some point in their studies take part in an internship or cooperative education assignment, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers. Slightly more than half of the internships are paid.

While the Maritime Aquarium's internships are not paid, assistant director Joe Schnierlein still gets 80 to 90 applications each spring, he says. The interns here break down into three categories: the education sort, who help with camps; the marketing and development sort, who help with the center's business side; and the animal husbandry sort, who hop into the tanks and cages to work with creatures.

How intimately?

"We have a minimum lifting requirement of 60 pounds," Schnierlein said. "If you're going to help lift a 300-pound loggerhead turtle, you've got to be able to do your part."

Wrymouth's eating habits

Growing up in Darien, Geissinger several times visited the Maritime Aquarium, but she never imagined she'd ever work here. Then, in high school, she spent a semester studying in the Bahamas. There, she once helped a crew of scientists track sharks. She was hooked.

Today, she's majoring in marine ecology at Bates College in Maine. She's writing her senior thesis on the eating habits of the eel-like fish called the wrymouth. Twice this summer, she's made the nearly 10-hour drive to the most northeastern corner of the U.S. to research.

Most weeks, though, she spends a couple of days lifeguarding at a pool in Wilton and four days interning at the aquarium.

She gets here by 7 a.m., spends up to several hours putting meals together for fish and mammals, and then checks in with the professional staff to see where she can help.

Sometimes, she tests the waters of various tanks for acidity, salinity and clarity levels.

Octopus `enrichment'

Other times, she performs "enrichment" activities with rather intelligent animals like the octopus. She hides treats inside jars or Lego formations for the octopus to uncover. Once, she let it wrap its tentacles around her arm. ("It felt like lots of suction cups.")

Late Tuesday morning, she was showing a visitor an upstairs workroom, where many fish are housed when not on public display. She stopped high above the "Ocean Beyond the Sound" exhibit, peering into the tank and recalling the day she put on SCUBA gear and hopped in with the sharks.

"With a weight around my waist," she said, as if to downplay the drama of the act. "So you sink to the bottom fast and don't get in their way."

`Poop happens'

A few minutes later, Geissinger was headed back outside to the bird cage. It was nearly silent, now, as the birds enjoyed the end of a twice daily resting session. With only staff allowed inside, there was no one to squeal if a bird landed unexpectedly on his or her head, or to point at the signs staked in the ground and crack a joke.

"Poop happens," the signs inform. "If you need assistance, ask a staff member. They say it's good luck."

Geissinger is no expert on birds or humans. But she's made various observations about the two creatures during her time in the cage. For one thing, several lorikeet sets have paired off romantically. Meanwhile, adult humans are more likely to shriek than children -- in part, she believes, because they're taller and more likely to be landed upon.

When the exhibit reopened at noon, her unofficial research was on full display.

`The Birds'

"It's like Alfred Hitchcock in here," one woman quipped, circling the exhibit rather quickly for the exit.

Then in walked the Leonards, a British family, now living in Rye, N.Y.

Patrick Leonard, 6, was so excited to come to the aquarium that he'd worn a T-shirt depicting a seafaring struggle of epic proportions: a giant octopus -- somewhat resembling the Cookie Monster -- grabbing with separate tentacles a shark, a pirate ship and an actual pirate.

For his part, Patrick was grabbing a tray of nectar now. A lorikeet found him quickly, then worked its way down his arm for the dish. Perching on his finger, the bird buried its beak in the nectar. Patrick regarded the bird with a bemused look, like he wasn't sure whether it be friend or foe.

No sooner had his mother taken a photo than the bird picked up its head and clamped its beak around Patrick's finger. He reached a verdict rather quickly.

"Take him off!" he cried, hopping in place. "Now!"

Geissinger had another half hour before she could enjoy her peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich. For now, she had a task to complete.

tloh@scni.com; twitter.com/timloh; 203-625-4428