National Aquarium

Meet the National Aquarium's first fish doctor

July 27, 2012: 12:22 PM ET

Brent Whitaker talks to Fortune about dreaming of a job that didn't yet exist and making a celebrity out of a sperm whale named "Inky."

FORTUNE -- It's tough enough to keep a room of people happy with the office thermostat, imagine catering to the thermal (and all other) needs of 500 different species. Brent Whitaker is responsible for the more than 12,000 animals -- and the 100 or so people who take care of them -- at the National Aquarium's two facilities.

Whitaker worked his way up to the job of "deputy executive director of biological programs" at the aquarium in Baltimore, but he started out as an aquatic veterinarian, a job that he and a group of his contemporaries pioneered.

Whitaker has spent the past 22 years leaning how to maintain his staff and funding while also minding the seemingly unusual health needs of rare species. He talks to Fortune about dreaming of a job that didn't yet exist, how to keep the salt mix right in the shark tank, and making a scientific celebrity out of a sperm whale named "Inky."

Fortune: What is the most interesting thing you've learned from managing so many animals? 

Brent Whitaker: Life is a balance for them. By that I mean you could have a two- or three-degree temperature fluctuation because your heater goes off and suddenly you have a parasitic outbreak in a large reef tank.

So you talk about managing people, you have to look at the same kind of things for animals to meet your goals. But you're not looking at salaries; you're looking at providing the proper diet, the proper temperature, and the proper humidity.

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This is all an investment that goes into creating a great visitor experience with animals that live, because that ultimately is more affordable than the old model in place when this building was first built, back in the early 80s. The concept was: bring an animal in; the animal dies; go replace it.

That doesn't sound sustainable. 

There were no veterinarians there. I was the first full-time veterinarian in an aquarium anywhere, and I joined in 1989. They had part-time vets. Basically, if you were a fish keeper you knew what medicine to put in your tank. It was a different level of practice, if you will.  More

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