After watching Free Willy as a kid, Jen Skoy knew what she wanted to be when she grew up: a marine biologist. Fast forward some 20 years and Skoy has made her childhood dream a reality. Today, she works at the S.C. Aquarium as an aquarist, a biologist who specializes in aquariums.
Her job is far from typical. Some days she’s out on a boat fishing for sharks with a line and pole for the aquarium’s new exhibit Shark Shallows, which opens in the spring. Other days she’s tagging animals behind-the-scenes. But then there are the days when she gets to wrangle sharks. “If [an animal] has outgrown the exhibit, like the sharks in the Great Ocean Tank, we send them to a different aquarium. But we’ve got to get them out somehow,” she says. “So we put on all of our gear and get them out that way. We shark wrangle.”
Her gear consists of the typical scuba outfit — a mask and wet suit and, of course, the fins. The fins — and they are called fins, not flippers — are issued by the aquarium. “There’s a dive safety officer who handles that,” she says. “I just wear them.” But Skoy knows that the fins are a major asset to getting the job done. “Swimming with scuba gear on and no fins is so hard. Swimming with fins makes its much easier, less effort,” she explains. “If we’re trying to catch an animal in the Great Ocean Tank without fins on, we’d be tired and dead in five minutes.”
Skoy and the other aquarists and divers also wear chainmail booties and gloves when they wrangle the sharks. Yes, chainmail like knights used to wear. It’s a preventative measure against bites — something that has never happened to Skoy or anyone at the aquarium that she knows of, she tells us as she knocks on the wooden table we’re sitting at. Best not to tempt fate.
But how does one get into the shark-wrangling business? Skoy went to the University of South Carolina and majored in marine biology. From there, she interned at the Riverbanks Zoo in Columbia, S.C. and worked at Ripley’s Aquarium of the before joining the S.C. Aquarium. It was also in college when she first got certified to dive.
Since then, Skoy hasn’t had much time to dive outside of work. “I’ve never had an opportunity to,” she explains, “but I dive with sharks all the time with no cage.”
“The coolest dives I’ve done have been offshore — no offense to the aquarium — but diving in the wild is way cooler,” says Skoy. “Visibility is not always the greatest, but just going down to the bottom and you look around and there’s all these fish, stingrays, sharks, creatures, whatever — that’s way cool.”
As for her craziest dive, well that goes back to the shark wrangling. “I mean, we’re trying to maneuver a tiger shark into a giant bag, essentially. And you’ve got the chainmail on, so you’re already huffing and puffing and trying to get the shark in the bag and it’s exciting and crazy,” she says.