As a young biologist with a lifelong passion for wildlife, Eric Hovland was thrilled to be hired in November 1994 at The Florida Aquarium, which was still under construction.
“I had heard about this innovative new aquarium being built in Tampa and wanted to be part of it,” Associate Curator Hovland recently told me.
Those initial months turned out to be a virtual zoological boot camp.
“We wanted to open in March and I don’t think any of us took a day off. It was nonstop work getting everything ready. We weren’t getting much sleep.”
It was as exhilarating as it was exhausting for Hovland, who had worked at several marine attractions in Texas.
“We collected fish in the Keys; we worked on getting the salt water habitat just right. We wanted a good healthy stock of fish and wanted everything to be perfect for the animals.”
As The Aquarium celebrates its 25th anniversary year, Hovland remains as enthused about his job as he was during those frantic early days. Indeed, he is a virtual walking advertisement for the rewards of aquarium work.
“We get to care for animals and tell their story and what we all can do to help them,” he said. “And we get to do science, too. We’re around animals and we’re around people. It is always fun.”
Born in Wisconsin, where his father was a high school principal, Hovland discovered his love for wildlife, particularly fish, early.
“I always was exploring ponds, always turning over that rock to see what was under it. I had an aquarium in my room and would watch every Jacques Cousteau show on TV.”
Wisconsin may not seem the most promising location for an aspiring marine biologist, but Hovland’s father was in the Naval Reserves and during summers the family would travel to Florida, Virginia, California and other coastal states. “So, I got a chance to explore the ocean.” He knew studying marine life would be his calling.
His family moved to Texas during his senior year of high school, which would have been unsettling for most teenagers. But the move south, Hovland discovered, allowed more opportunities to explore the natural world, particularly because “ponds didn’t freeze over in Texas.”
He obtained a marine biology degree at Texas A&M at Galveston and resolved to work with animals in an aquarium or other facility.
“Most of my fellow student biologists went on into the medical field, working in the lab environment. Now they are wearing white coats and may be extracting serum from rats or something else far from marine biology.”
In contrast, his Aquarium job is full of adventure. He is, at work and on vacation, always getting to “turn over that rock,” whether it be swimming with giant manta rays at Socorro Islands, Mexico, or searching a Brandon pond for a particular water bug needed for display.
He also has a sense of purpose.
Hovland takes The Aquarium’s conservation education mission seriously and relishes the opportunity to enlighten children and adults about the Blue Planet. Personable and articulate, with a remarkable command of scientific facts, he is a favorite of local television stations, particularly during shark week. He is sometimes called the Shark Guy.
His long hair and distinctive handlebar mustache also create an impression.
He not only works with The Aquarium’s sharks, but the avid SCUBA diver frequently observes sharks in the wild, including great whites off Guadalupe Island in the Pacific.
It is revealing of his regard for sharks that one of his favorite memories at The Aquarium is helping save a white tip reef shark that had mysteriously stopped eating. Because aquarium animals are monitored closely, this was quickly noticed.
Hovland helped the veterinarians as they used an MRI to discover and remove a blockage. The shark recovered. Hovland believes it was the first time imaging was used on a live shark.
He conceded there were some tough times in the early years as the attraction sought solid financial footing.
“There were times when you wondered if you would have your job the next week. We went through a period of right sizing.
Once we had to give back a 10 percent pay raise for three months to keep everything afloat.”
He took it in stride: “I just figured I would live like I did in college.”
As The Aquarium improved its finances, it also refined its messaging. Hovland said the initial emphasis on environment threats bordered on being heavy handed.
“At the exit, there were pictures of birds caught in plastic six packs, and oil spills. Important stuff, but it was a real bummer as you were leaving. Now the conservation message is woven in throughout the place.”
The goal, he stressed, is to inspire people to better appreciate and thus protect the Blue Planet, not depress them.
The Aquarium is now a financial success and Hovland is proud of how it devotes much of its revenue to critical research, including groundbreaking work on reproducing in the laboratory healthy species of Florida coral that are imperiled in the wild.
The 20-acre Center for Conservation complex, which includes laboratories, a sea turtle hospital and education facilities, has given a major boost to The Aquarium’s studies.
“It is not just that we are on a rising tide,” he said of The Aquarium’s efforts. “We are on the tip of the tip of some of the scientific work that needs to be done.”
As Hovland saw The Aquarium flourish, he also saw Tampa become a major metropolitan area, one that he doesn’t plan to leave, though he’s had job offerings elsewhere.
Indeed, his job aided his real estate decision.
“A volunteer who was a Realtor advised me to buy a home in South Tampa back when prices were much lower. I am very grateful.”
He also is grateful for his job that after 25 years he still finds fulfilling and fun.
“We’re not just a world-class aquarium. This experience can change people. I’ve found a key to changing people is getting them to fall in love with animals. They may come in to see a cute penguin, but then you may be able to get them to also fall in love with sharks or other misunderstood creatures. And then they care about the Blue Planet. We send people home with the message that they really can make a difference.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Joe Guidry, a Tampa native, worked for The Tampa Tribune Company for more than 40 years. He joined The Tampa Tribune Editorial Department in 1984, later became Deputy Editorial Page editor and took over as Opinion Page Editor in 2008, a position he held until the Tribune ceased publication in May 2016. Read more...