Family Portraits: Jenn Hutchins

We all know that reindeer can fly, but did you know that Santa could swim? It’s true and, this weekend, you can have breakfast with Scuba Santa at the Adventure Aquarium in Camden, N.J. To find out more about what’s going on at the aquarium, we spoke to Jenn Hutchins, who is used to working with the wet and wild — not just with her job as a biologist at the aquarium, but also at her part-time gig at Sisters nightclub.

PGN: Tell me a little about yourself. JH: Well, I’m 29. I was born in South Jersey, Rancocas Valley. I have a younger sister and we grew up right outside of a military base. We pretty much had a core group of friends that lived there but we also made friends with a number of military kids, so we got used to people coming and going a lot. As a result, I now have friends all over the world.

PGN: Very cool. Were your parents in the military? JH: My dad was in the National Guard when he was young, but that was just for a short period. He was stationed in an area that was very sparsely developed and decided he liked the isolation, so right before I was born, he bought some land and built a house and the family has been there ever since. Both he and my mom worked as bus drivers. They wanted to have the same hours as us so they could spend time with the family. He also worked in a warehouse and got me a job there for a while. My mom also did home demonstrations back when they were popular.

PGN: What was a favorite thing to do as a kid? JH: Climbing trees. I was a big tomboy. I also loved softball when I was young, but it’s kind of hard to play that when you’re by yourself out in the sticks. PGN: Favorite class? JH: I liked science and math.

PGN: And what did you go to college for? JH: I have a bachelor of science in marine biology from Fairleigh Dickinson University.

PGN: How did you get into bartending? JH: Biology is not the most lucrative career, so while I was in college I also went to bartending school. I worked in a number of restaurants, like Chi Chi’s and Applebee’s, before getting the gig at Sisters. I worked there steady for a few years and now I mostly fill in for people.

PGN: What is the best thing about working at the club? JH: I enjoy a lot of the charitable things I get to do representing the club. We do a date auction to raise money for the Susan G. Komen Foundation. I also participate in the dunk-a-dyke fundraiser that we do at Gay Pride each year.

PGN: What was an early encounter with the fishies? JH: I did an internship for a short period of time in the dolphin and whale hospital at Mote Marine in Florida. I would do food prep or, if they needed anyone to get in the pool and walk an animal, I would volunteer to do it.

PGN: How do you walk a dolphin? JH: You put on a wetsuit and get in the tank with them. Some are so sick they can’t swim on their own so we help them along. Kind of like rehab for people, you need to get them moving even if they are sick or injured. If it’s a small dolphin, it may take only one person to help them keep afloat, but if it’s a whale, it may take four or five people in the water.

PGN: How do you prep food for a whale? JH: You get a flat of frozen fish, thaw it out, divvy it up and add whatever vitamins or medications are needed for each one.

PGN: So were you ever able to get a date smelling like fish all the time? JH: [Laughs.] Actually, my girlfriend at the time moved down there with me. She got homesick and moved back and then my sister called to tell me she was pregnant so I moved home as well.

PGN: What was the scariest encounter in the water? JH: Doing a dive show at the Adventure Aquarium: I was in the water in front of an audience and my dive buddy and I were at the window playing with guests. Suddenly I saw him peel off the window and start swimming backward. I was like, What’s he doing? And then I saw a sand tiger shark coming right toward my head and I thought, Holy cow, that’s a really big shark right coming my way. The way we position ourselves, we’re in the water with them, but never get that close to the sharks. I floated off the window and he swam past me without incident, but it was a bit unnerving seeing that many shark teeth coming right at you.

PGN: What else do you do there? JH: My primary responsibility is working with the penguins but, as part of the team, I do the seal shows and help feed and train the seals and I work with the parrots and other small mammals and reptiles. I’m also a diver and have been cleared to do a number of the exhibits, such as the ocean realm and the shark realm, so if we have a night event or special event and there’s a dive, I can do it.

PGN: Did you have animals growing up? JH: We always had dogs when I was growing up and a fish tank for a period of time, hamsters and whatnot. I’ve always been interested in nature and animals and the environment. When I was about 6 years old, I told my mother that I wanted to be a dolphin trainer. For my eighth birthday, they took me to SeaWorld. I got randomly picked out of the audience to help the trainers during the Shamu show and that was it, I was hooked. In middle school and high school I informed all my guidance counselors that I was going to FDU to study marine biology. They were all like, “Well, let’s keep our options open.” But I knew what I wanted: FDU was the only school I applied to, I got in early and my parents said they would do whatever it took to make sure I could go.

PGN: Why marine animals? Did you go to the shore a lot? JH: No, I was always fascinated by dolphins and how intelligent they are. They have a really complex social structure and advanced communication skills. They’re not just a friendly little animal: They have complex thoughts just like we do.

PGN: Tell me three dolphin fun facts. JH: Well, most of my research was on dolphin aggression, so they’re not cuddly, cute anecdotes.

PGN: That’s a fact right there — that they’re not always the friendly “Flipper” we imagine them to be. I’ve heard that male dolphins can be sexually aggressive with human females. JH: Yes, they can. I don’t know why, but a fact that people find interesting about the penguins is that they go to the bathroom every 10-15 minutes. The media seems to be fascinated with that! In real life, penguins and polar bears don’t ever coincide. Polar bears are from the north and penguins are from the south. Of the 17 species of penguins, only two live in the cold of Antarctica year-round. Most of them live in warm climates.

PGN: What’s the goofiest question you’ve gotten? JH: Oh, that’s not fair: I can’t think of just one! People will ask me why we have so many ducks on exhibit when they’re actually penguins. We get people who harass us all summer for torturing the penguins because they think it’s too hot, when in actuality the penguins are from South Africa, so the heat is natural for them.

PGN: What’s your favorite animal to work with? JH: So far, out of the ones I’ve been able to be up close and personal with, my favorites are the penguins and the walruses. I volunteered at the New York Aquarium and got to work with a walrus. She was blind and about 1,800 pounds and was the sweetest, most gentle animal I’ve ever met — keeping in mind that you have to be careful, because at any moment any animal could charge. But she was just a sweetheart.

PGN: What’s the most intelligent animal you’ve worked with other than dolphins? JH: I’d have to say the octopus that we have at the Adventure Aquarium. At Halloween, we took a carved pumpkin and put a crab into it so that she’d have to figure out how to get it out. It was cool watching her figure out the puzzle to get her treat.

PGN: What other animal enrichment things do you do? JH: The seals like Frisbees and all sorts of retrieval toys and we have a children’s toy slide that we use to give them fish. The penguins like playing with bubbles. They have fun chasing them around.

PGN: Changing topics, tell me about coming out. JH: I was on a break in college and I told my ex-boyfriend first and he was really supportive. I told my sister after that and she said, “Yeah, who didn’t know that?” My mom was next and she said, “It’s not the path I’d choose for you but I love you and nothing will change that.” She’s been supportive ever since and wouldn’t have me change for the world. My dad was pretty cool at first, but recently he’s become more involved in the church so it’s been a little harder for him to take.

PGN: Did you ever play any sports other than throwing the ball to yourself in the boonies? JH: [Laughs.] Yes, in high school I was active in softball, basketball and soccer. When I went to college, I stuck with softball. I play in three different leagues right now.

PGN: What position? JH: I’m a utility player. In fast pitch, I’m a catcher. In slow pitch, I can play anything in the infield but pitcher.

PGN: What was a great moment in sports for you? JH: Spring training in college. We’d go down to Florida and got to play just for the fun of it. We didn’t have to worry about standings or stats or going through to the next playoff: We could just practice and have fun. It was really cool because there were also a lot of the major-league players down there at the same time — guys from the Yankees, the Mets, the Braves. We were all at the same facilities, so they’d come over and watch our games. It was a great feeling when they’d come over and tell you what a great job you did or comment on a good play. It was amazing getting such positive feedback from the professional players. PGN: Are you seeing anyone now? JH: Yes, her name is Erin. We met last year during softball and she’s fantastic. Very supportive: This [past] summer I did a 75-mile bike ride for MS and she got up at three in the morning to make sure I had breakfast and dropped me off at the train station. And when I crossed the finish line, she was one of the first faces I saw waiting to congratulate me.

PGN: The holidays are coming, what’s a gift you didn’t like getting? JH: My grandfather used to buy us sweaters for Christmas, but he wasn’t very fashion-forward. He would buy sweaters that my grandmother would wear, which was great for her, not so good for a 9-year-old child.

PGN: What winter Olympic event would you want to compete in? JH: Probably the bobsled. The one where you have four people go down the track together. Either that or snowboarding on the big half-pipe.

PGN: Are you a bit of a thrillseeker?

JH: Absolutely. A little too much for my mother, so I have to be careful what I tell her. When I do things like the shark dive that I did in South Africa, I wait until after it’s over to tell her. I have a cool DVD of me on the boat after the dive saying, “Look mom! I still have all of my fingers!”

PGN: Wow. Any other adventures? JH: I did sea turtle research with the University of Hawaii and there were a couple of times when we were snorkeling and we’d run into a few sharks in the open water.

PGN: So are you excited about Santa visiting the aquarium? JH: Yes, they’ve revamped the show a bit so it’ll be fun to see what’s new.

Breakfast with Scuba Santa Dec. 11-12 9-10:30 a.m. Space is limited; reservations are recommended.

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