Interning at the NC Aquarium

Hello! My name is Rebekah and I am a senior studying environmental studies. I have many interests including conservation, wildlife biology, estuarine science, and ecosystem management. Going into this semester, I was very open-minded about my internship placement. While I am very indecisive, I did know I wanted to gain hands-on experience, I wanted to push myself out of my comfort zone, and I wanted to learn something new. Interning at the NC Aquarium on Roanoke Island was the perfect place for me to accomplish all three of those things!

A hungry eastern box turtle munching on his salad.

I interned with Britt Purtee, the head of animal husbandry at the NC Aquarium on Roanoke Island in Manteo. I had the privilege to learn from Britt and other aquarists including Sheena Jones and Jess Foti. One of the first things Britt told me was that being an aquarist is essentially being a glorified janitor. After my first few days, I could definitely attest to that!


A typical day at the aquarium started with helping Sheena with her salt-water tanks. I learned the interworkings of life support systems- a tank’s plumbing, pumps, skimmers, and filters. I cleaned exhibits and prepped and fed them their food. Sheena taught me how to care for saltwater environments, create diets, target feed specific animals, and how to make sure no one gets left out at feeding time.


Target feeding Big Girl, the sand tiger shark with a long pole with a mackerel on the end.

I also had the opportunity to overcome my fear of snakes and learn from Jess, a herpetologist at the aquarium. Each week I would check temperatures of reptile exhibits, feed lizards and toads, and make box turtle food. I helped with routine medical exams for the reptiles including taking weights, fecal samples, and treating quarantined frogs for nematodes. I helped conduct animal welfare assessments for reptiles and Jess was a great person to talk to about wellness for wild animals in captivity. Jess also took care of the otter exhibit at the aquarium and each week I measured their food and made them treats! I helped implement enrichment activities including changing up exhibit décor, creating puzzle-like toys, and painting!


One of my favorite parts of each day was feeding the sharks in the Graveyard of the Atlantic exhibit. Britt shared his experience with caring for the sharks for the past 20 years and I learned how to care for a large system with predators. It was always fun to feed the sharks and get to know each of their personalities as they gobbled up mackerels and herring.


A container of fish food ready to be broadcast into the tank.

I looked forward to my internship each week and I was so thankful to have an internship where I felt like I was doing work work, not just schoolwork. I loved the hands-on work of husbandry and the constant collaboration and learning within the staff- there is so much to know in this field!



While I gained so many new skills and experiences, learning new things often comes with some humbling moments. There was a day, definitely a Monday, where I dropped an entire container of food into an open lid tank and splashed a bunch of visitors below (they looked up and were very confused why it rained on them indoors) or when I spilled squid ink all over my shoes. I felt like I was in over my head sometimes but my mentors were kind, funny, and eager to share their passions with me.

The otters Finn and Banks painted during an enrichment activity on my last day!




 I really appreciate everyone in the husbandry department at the NC Aquarium on Roanoke Island, especially Britt, Jess, and Sheena. I am so thankful for the patient and encouraging environment they created!
My internship was one of my favorite parts of being at the field site. To prospective OBXFS students interested in biology, animal care, conservation, or plumbing, I recommend getting in touch with the aquarium.

If you want to reach your 10,000 step goal every day, feel like you can never learn enough, or refine your shrimp peeling skills, being an aquarist will check all of those boxes!


– Rebekah Littauer

OBXFS ’21: Woods and Waves

I convinced myself that each wave was washing the ticks right off of me. We were swimming in ocean water so turquoise, it looked straight out of a Caribbean island tourist magazine, and the shore was glistening with shells.

The very blue waters that revived us at the end of the day.

The exaggerated luxury of this swim and the false assurance that being pummeled by waves washed away ticks was in contrast to our day in Buxton Woods. We had finished our first day of fieldwork for our Capstone research project in Buxton Woods down on Hatteras Island. With the help of GPS coordinates from a 1988 survey and Lindsay’s bushwhacking a few days prior, we made it to our plot area. We were conducting vegetation surveys, which included measuring tree diameters, taking plant samples, and digging soil samples.

Loaded in the back of the truck on our way to our site! (author Rebekah pictured on far right)

Going into this day, there was a nervous anticipation amongst the group. All we kept hearing about Buxton Woods was that it was the breeding ground for the peskiest mosquitoes, the most Lyme diseasiest ticks, and the best place for poisonous snakes to test out their fangs. It was going to be hot, humid, and we would be pestered non-stop all day with bugs. We had mosquito nets covering our faces and layers upon layers of deet soaked clothes in our best effort to prepare for the day.

Despite our best preparation, we faced several logistical and methodological challenges throughout the day. We were all amateur plant identifiers. We constantly had to ask Kathy, our guiding plant expert, questions and consult our picture-less wordy guidebooks to determine each specific species. It was hot, the bugs were biting rampant, and we had a bit of logistical confusion. It was the perfect recipe for group discord, frustration, snappy attitudes, and irritation.

However, even after several hours in the woods, I heard Jane, Steve, and Nathalie laughing from the other side of the plot. Jason was still yanking on vines and Blakely continued to measure tree trunks with patience and accuracy- yelling out our absurd and incorrect pronunciations for each species’ Latin name.

Nathalie, Steve, and Jane could be heard laughing from across the woods! 

Any tension or nervousness going into the day had disappeared. I was continually encouraged by the flexibility, perseverance, and genuine spirits of the group. I was proud of how we not only managed to stay sane and support each other throughout the day, but many of us actually had fun. I stepped out of the woods exhausted, but happy. Our swim on the beach at the end of the day was just the cherry on top of a great day.

Jason and Blakely held our team together recording tree diameters.

This short anecdote is merely one day of laughter and friendship. In the first month here, I have loved getting to make new friends, learn outside, and try new things! I am soaking it up and am enjoying each day here. Here’s to the rest of the semester of bug spray, laughter, friends, the woods, and pummeling waves!