At home on the water

Growing up in Sodwana Bay, KwaZulu-Natal, a young William Mlambo made tips off the town’s thriving diving industry, but it was only later in life that he would get to experience the wonders of the underwater world himself.

“When I was eight or nine I would help visitors wash their diving equipment because lots of divers come to Sodwana Bay to dive among the coral reefs, but I didn’t know what lay beneath the water. I realised people were coming to see something we didn’t know as a community,” says Mlambo, 42.

This early experience combined with an abiding love for animals – Mlambo eagerly looked after his family’s cattle, goats and dogs after school – lay a foundation that he could build on when he was offered a position at uShaka Marine World after years of working in unrelated jobs in Johannesburg.

“I had done courses in electronics and admin and was working as a merchandiser in a Joburg mall, but when I heard uShaka was recruiting in the Sodwana Bay community, I moved back home and applied.”

At the Durban theme park, Mlambo was finally introduced to the mysteries of the deep when he completed open water and advanced commercial diving courses. “It was beautiful down there and I especially liked the clown trigger fish.”

As a diver, Mlambo cleaned the dolphin, seal and penguin pools, diving to 6m depths every day. Then in 2007 he was promoted to be an aquarist. “This means I do animal husbandry and I looked after all the fish and animals including sharks, stingrays, potato bass and eels in different tanks. This includes feeding them and picking them up if they are sick.”

Mlambo’s job as aquarist also included a stint at uShaka’s quarantine facility where he medicated and rehabilitated sick creatures.

“We once had a turtle who’s flipper had been bitten by a shark and we thought he wouldn’t survive, but thanks to a lot of love and effort he made it and is now a resident of uShaka.”

At the beginning of July, the father-of-five moved to the East London Aquarium and brought all his experience with him.

“They tell me I am the first aquarist here and I’m proud of that and will work extra hard.”

His devotion to the well-being of marine life was abundantly clear when he played a pivotal role in the rescue of a giant ray which was stuck in Gonubie’s tidal pool.

As the magnificent creature flapped out to sea, Mlambo escorted it far into the surf-line, ensuring it was good to go. “For me this is not just a job. It is cool to be paid to do something I love,” says Mlambo, whose small desk at the aquarium is lined with tomes like Smith’s Sea Fishes and The Reef Guide by Dennis King, which was signed by the author after he bought a copy.

“It was amazing that someone who wrote a book like this would come to me at work to sign it. These books are my work bibles, they tell me what fish eat and their habitat.”

Mlambo’s day begins with tank cleaning, making sure all the exhibits look good for visitors. Then he goes “back of house”, the area behind the tanks, to check pumps are circulating water correctly. Feeding follows.

“Everyone has a different diet and so I also ensure the kitchen has prepared the right feed.”

A large walk-in freezer contains feed and it is his job to ensure it is well-stocked. Health monitoring is also a critical part of the job. “If a fish is not healthy, we decide on its treatment.” Baby fish and marine creatures are kept in the “nursery” and Mlambo points out a tiny moray eel curled up in a small PVC pipe. “It was donated by a member of the public and eats bits of prawn or sardine,” he says.

New arrivals land up in the quarantine area for monitoring and Mlambo keeps a close eye on water temperature and feeding.

When he’s not interacting with a motley collection of pineapple fish, needle urchins, loggerhead turtles, a smooth hound shark and triangular box fish in the atmospheric exhibits, Mlambo pulls on his wetsuit and heads seawards.

“Last Thursday [aquarium colleagues] Siani Tinley, Steven Rheeder and I went scuba diving at the Orient Pier and collected ten basket stars for a display. I love doing that,” says Mlambo, whose eyes light up when he shows off the beautifully named creatures which look like little trees, but are in fact a very frilly kind of starfish which catch prey with quivering tentacles.

“I am very happy at this aquarium. I received a great welcome from the staff and I think this is a great facility for teaching children about the ocean’s marine life and how important it is to preserve it and keep plastic out of the sea.”

Buffalo City Municipality chief of marine services Siani Tinley said Mlambo’s appointment was “historical” because he was the first aquarist at the East London Aquarium since it opened 86 years ago.

“Before, a few of us pulled together to do these essential tasks and now we have someone who is devoted to them. William comes with a lot of experience which will benefit the aquarium and East London in general.” — barbarah@dispatch.co.za

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