Alumna lives a life among the fishes.

Sea Turtle (picture courtesy of the National Aquarium.)

By Keely Savoie

As curator of fishes and dive-safety officer for the National Aquarium in Baltimore, Holly Bourbon ’87 rarely has a dry day.

“I’m the wettest curator by any measure,” the Mount Holyoke College alumna said. “My exhibits are too big to look from outside in and manage—so I have to get in.”

Bourbon is in charge of the largest fish exhibits in the aquarium: a 335,000-gallon exhibit containing Atlantic coral reef species, a 250,000-gallon exhibit of sharks and rays, and a 270,000-gallon exhibit containing Indo-Pacific species, including blacktip reef sharks. She was recently featured on the Discovery Channel’s “Shark Week” as a national expert on the animals.

“To me it’s the best of all worlds,” she said. “We’ve got a bit of everything.”

And she brings a bit of everything to the work she does—along with a whole lot of courage, know-how, and confidence.

She was brought into the National Aquarium in June 2012 to help break down an older exhibit, Wings in the Water, which housed cownose rays, a green sea turtle named Calypso, and zebra sharks. The exhibit needed structural improvements and thematic updates, but breaking down an aquarium exhibit is no simple task. It is an intricate job, requiring risk-management, dive safety, and meticulous organization. Capturing and relocating the animals (most often to other aquariums) means custom building everything from lifting equipment to transport solutions. And there’s only one chance to do it right.

“It’s hard at times, but it’s cool when you see all the pieces come together and it works out,” Bourbon said. “It’s all about planning and efficiency.“

In addition to managing the exhibits, as a dive-safety officer, Bourbon has the formidable task of implementing safety and dive protocols for the more than 200 staff and volunteer divers associated with the aquarium.

“It’s about having operational set ups and control, protocols in place,” she said. “That includes training, safety, CPR, and first aid.”

Bourbon didn’t start college at Mount Holyoke with the idea of working for an aquarium. A biology major, she was on the pre-vet track. But when an opportunity arose for her to work at the New England Aquarium between sophomore and junior years, she decided to give it a try.

As an intern, Bourbon worked for the dive team—or “wet team”—and helped with the African penguin and Giant Ocean Tank exhibits. She arrived every morning before the staff to prepare food for the African penguins, fish, sea turtles, and river otters.

“It wasn’t glamorous work, but the fact that I got hands-on experience with the animals, and the physical aspect of it, that I could be wet in a wetsuit—that for me was the turning point,” she said. “Being around the water, working with animals and the public—the aquarium exposed me to so many cool elements that as soon as that internship was done, I said, ‘How can I get back here?’”

She went on to get a summer job on a whale-watch boat as a naturalist and mate, working five days a week on the boat and volunteering one day a week with the divers.

It was having the structure and support to do the internship—and the broad liberal arts curriculum at Mount Holyoke—that Bourbon credits with enabling her to explore a different path than the one she had initially envisioned for herself.

“Mount Holyoke required me to do an off-campus internship,” she recalled. “They saw the value of how working with other people in the world already would help someone’s education.”

In addition to making her exhibits the best they can be, honing the safety and skills of her dive team, and expanding the aquarium’s involvement in field-diving and conservation initiatives, Bourbon hopes that part of her legacy will be to build the National Aquarium’s dive program and to help mentor other dive-safety officers.

“Women in diving, and now as dive-safety officers, is a growing occupation,” she explained. “The required internship I did during my years at Mount Holyoke started me on the career path I have taken thus far, and it has been a challenging but rewarding road. I have been able to work and care for animals, work with staff, promote diving safety, and best of all, scuba dive. There is nothing I’d like more than to help other women embark on similar career paths, using my knowledge and skills to buoy them along toward success.”

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