Nothing but local catches at the Beavertail Aquarium
Kimberly Manchester and Courtney Josephson hope that the new sign at the Beavertail Aquarium will bring renewed attention to the one-room facility that is adjacent to the lighthouse. Both women are naturalists employed by the state Department of Environmental Management to run the aquarium.
People come from all over the country – and from other nations as well – each year to visit the aquarium. Visitors range from school children to adults. For the most part the fish and other creatures on display are collected throughout the season at DEM’s laboratory at Fort Wetherill.
“They are really invaluable to our program,” said Josephson, who graduated from St. Joseph’s College in Maine with a degree in marine science. “They help us catch the larger species that we can show off to people like the shark, which makes our program really popular.”
Josephson transferred from Warwick’s Goddard Park a few weeks ago. Her partner, Manchester, is also in her first season at Beavertail. She is a senior at the University of Rhode Island.
At one time, the freestanding building that houses the aquarium was used to store a foghorn – the tanks that held the compressed air that powered the horn can still be seen hanging from the ceiling. In the 1970s the United States Coast Guard took responsibility for the nation’s lighthouses, which had previously been managed by the Department of Transportation.
When the foghorns were replaced by a fog siren, the building became obsolete. The siren is controlled at Quonset Point, as are all of the operations of the lighthouse. As a result, the building was used for storage for several years until 1983 when it was opened up as a native life aquarium.
The naturalists are proud of the fact that this season the aquarium is displaying only creatures that are native to this area. (The aquarium is open from May through October, seven days a week between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m.) Among the attractions in the aquarium’s tanks is a 1-year-old dogfish shark, which is a type of sand shark. The shark can grow to 4 feet within about eight years.
Keeping the shark company in the tank is a female horseshoe crab of undetermined age. The naturalists identify the crab as a female because of its size. The females tend to be larger than the males, growing to 2 feet long and 1 foot wide. Males also have larger claws in the front, which are employed during mating season. The tank also houses a baby lobster.
“Lobsters have two different claws,” Manchester said. “A crushing claw and a shredding claw. The claws are different shapes. The left claw is the crushing claw, most lobsters being lefthanded. That’s the most powerful claw. This gives a close-up look at the two non-symmetrical claws.”
The denizens of the tank enjoy dining on periwinkle snails, which are collected along the shore as well a type of minnow called silversides, shrimp, and even canned clams from the dollar store.
The most fortunate creature in the aquarium is not a marine animal at all. A white mouse named Mr. Jingles was purchased from the pet store to be dinner for the aquarium’s snakes. The snakes however showed no interest in consuming him when he was placed in their tank. So, the mouse now has his own tank where he runs happily on his wheel. While the mouse is available for adoption at the end of the season, the other creatures will be returned to the natural habitats.
In addition to the milk snake and the garter snake – which apparently prefer earthworms and silversides for dinner as opposed to Mr. Jingles – other tanks at the aquarium contain local fish like scup, winter flounder, cunner fish, tautog, black sea bass, striped sea robins and snowy grouper. There are also local crabs on display including rock crabs and a green crab, which likes to cause trouble with his tank-mates.
Josephson’s pet project is a seahorse tank that is home to a pipefi sh, which is similar in nature to a seahorse. “Seahorses and pipefish are terrible swimmers,” she said. “They need a tank of their own so that they don’t have to worry about competition for food.”
Although seahorses are sometimes found in the area during the summer, they are considered rare as they tend to be more tropical.
“We’re small, but functional,” Josephson said, who admits one of the more rewarding things about her job is hearing the fishing stories that visitors tell her. “It allows people to see what’s out there in our oceans that they might be swimming with. Kids love to go to the tidal pools in the summertime. This gives them an idea of what they might catch in the tidal pool, or what they might catch if they’re out fishing on a boat. It gives people an idea of what the fish they’re eating look like so they become a bit more connected to their food.”
She added, “It’s really important for them to see what Rhode Island has to offer, and that it’s worth protecting it and investing in it for the future.”