Ahwatukee aquarist Skylar Snowden save coral SEA LIFE Arizona

Aquarist Skylar Snowden of Ahwatukee watches over a huge vat of coral that is kept in a room at SEA LIFE Arizona in Arizona Mills, where Snowden is the curator of all the marine life. 

Most people head to the Caribbean for a vacation; Skylar Snowden went there to help save the planet.

The Ahwatukee resident is an aquarist – defined by environmental groups as someone who cares for marine life in aquariums by maintaining their living environments and having hands on interactions with the creatures.

That pretty much describes her job as the curator at SEA LIFE Arizona at Arizona Mills in Tempe, but it also applies to her sense of purpose where ocean life is concerned.

And not just any ocean life. She specifically cares for coral – a lot.

I gravitate toward invertebrates and for sure, coral is my specialty,” she said, quickly adding, “but I’ve done a lot of work with sharks too.”

As home to more than one million different types of aquatic life, coral is a vital link in the world’s food chain.

 For people living on small islands, it’s both food and a source of food. And coral reefs provide natural barriers for coastal cities and beaches.

 For Snowden, though, coral also holds a sublime fascination, part of her lifelong love affair with the sea.

A Virginia Beach native and daughter of a career Navy officer, Snowden explained, “I grew up at the beach too, so I grew up surfing my whole life. I was at the beach anytime I wasn’t in school, which means I was at the beach a lot. So, I guess just my whole life’s been the ocean.”

Indeed, when she first got out of high school, she went to college for a little while but dropped out so she could surf “for I don’t know how many years.”

Then she joined the Coast Guard, and was stationed in Los Angeles, which enabled her to keep on surfing in her down time.

And when she returned to college and got her degree in biology, specializing in sea creatures.

Which brings us to her current job – in the middle of the desert, no less – and the reason for her trip to the Caribbean.

As curator the last couple of years at SEA LIFE Arizona, Snowden said, “My biggest responsibility is just making sure that all of our animals have a safe, peaceful existence with the animals’ welfare at the forefront of all our decision-making. 

“So, my biggest job is probably just making sure that not only the animals, but the staff have everything that they need to be the champions to those animals because they care very much about the animals. It’s important to me to make sure that I make sure that they have everything they need to be able to do their job safely and efficiently.”

She doesn’t necessarily miss living near the ocean.

“Honestly, the desert’s grown on me,” she said. “I had my reservations at first, but then after I was here for three or four months, I started kind of noticing the beauty and the desert. So, I had been doing a lot of hiking with my dogs and stuff like that. A lot of camping and I’ve enjoyed the heck out of that.”

And she’s never far from coral.

 In a large room set away from the dimly lit corridors of SEA LIFE Arizona where sea creatures live in sparkling aquariums, Snowden also oversees a huge vat where dozens of different kinds of coral grow, though she leaves the actual work to her “coral man” Brett.

“If I went in and just did all the work, it would be totally fun for me, but wouldn’t be a good learning experience for him,” she explained.

 “It’s more important to me to sort of bring up that next generation of people who are going to care and take care of them like I did.”

But in the Caribbean last month, she had a chance to care for the coral directly, continuing an effort on her part that since 2010 has helped to reproduce millions of coral.

She had persuaded SEA LIFE to send her and its other aquarists from SEA LIFE sites across the country to spend nearly a month on a boat off the island of Curacao to study butterfly fish, and determine whether they are the “bees of coral reefs” by aiding coral’s expansion and cross-breeding.

The team also collected fertilized coral eggs, called gametes, raised them in labs until they became larvae, then put them carefully on small rocks amid broken reefs so they could grow.

While the aquarists didn’t prove their theory, Snowden said, the conservation side of their mission “worked out perfectly.”

“In the end we raised over 200,00 baby coral larvae and of those we got 42,500 or so to settle on the reef,” she said, explaining that this technique eventually fills gaps in the coral reef and helps it to replenish itself on its own.

The technique helps repair the damage done to reefs by the natural aging process as well as by the external ravages of pollution.

That pollution comes from a high-nutrient environment created by runoff as far away as Africa.

“Let’s say there’s a farm that’s inland and they use tons of fertilizer on farms,” Snowden explained. “They’ve taken all the trees off the land, so when it rains, all that runoff runs back into the river with all of the fertilizer and all the mud and the scum and everything else right out into the ocean, right on under the roof. So, what happens is you get these high nutrient environments and algae just blooms like crazy and the corals can’t grow fast enough to compete with the algae.”

“All these techniques and all this stuff that we’re doing are super important for our understanding of corals,” Snowden said. 

“The more we understand them, the better we’re going to be able to take care of them, the better we’re going to be able to conserve them. Every time we do this, we learn something new about these animals,” she continued.

“And that is inherently important because the future may be the only corals left might be in aquariums and if people don’t know how to reproduce them in aquariums. Then, we’re dead in the water.”

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