For Madeline Walden, a day at work involves roaming the Aquarium of the Pacific, interacting with animals and filming them for their online debuts. Otters use the opportunity to finesse extra snacks from their keepers. Harpo the sea lion shows off his singing voice, which is more of a prolonged yell. Lola the parakeet shimmies and sways with his aviary dance moves.
Little do these animals know that they’re being broadcast to a fanbase of nearly 340,000 followers on the popular social media app TikTok. As social media coordinator for the aquarium, it’s Walden’s job to capture these moments.
“It’s a blast,” Walden said. “We try to make every single video, not just the cute stuff that would necessarily get the likes, but to tell a story and have some sort of conservation message or something that educates.”
When COVID-19 gripped the nation in March, businesses around the country shut down. The Aquarium of the Pacific, the largest aquarium in Southern California and the fourth most visited in the country, was no different. For the aquarium, this meant shutting down their exhibits to the public.
“It’s been a big difference,” Vice President of Finance Anthony Brown said. “It’s kind of eerie to walk around the aquarium and not see kids running around, to not see people here.”
But as their in-person viewership stunted, they captured the interest of millions of fans online.
In January, the Aquarium of the Pacific joined TikTok. Up until March, they had a meager 160 followers. Then, after one of their videos went viral, their followers surged to 100,000. Now, they’re sharing marine education with hundreds of thousands of fans.
With the temporary closure of their exhibits, the team had to pivot their strategy. During this pivot, they became more reliant on their online presence.
“It was really important to the leadership of the aquarium to be able to continue our mission and vision of connecting people with ocean education,” senior manager of aquarium communications Claire Atkinson said. “Just because our doors closed to the public didn’t mean that we stopped our mission.”
This mission lived on through online programming, classes, lectures and live cams in exhibits, many of which existed before the pandemic.
“Kids and parents are stuck at home together. A lot of people are looking for educational content online and ways to keep their kids engaged,” Atkinson said.
Their TikTok account became one of many outlets for this engagement. The video-based social media application has 800 million active users worldwide, the majority of which are teens and young adults.
In one video, a giant pacific octopus named Godzilla devours a toy boat full of mussels, carefully picking out each shell before releasing the boat. The video garnered 5.7 million views and 1.2 million likes.
“People love cephalopods,” Atkinson said. “And clearly from the comments you can tell that people are both local and global.”
Though the aquarium opened its outdoor exhibits in June, the social media account has continued to offer educational opportunities for those who prefer to enjoy the aquarium from the comfort of their homes. Until it’s safe for the aquarium to fully reopen, Brown hopes that their programming will help fill the gap.
“[The aquarium is] definitely a gathering place for our community,” Brown said. “I know that our patrons have missed being here and visiting the exhibits as well.”
As for capitalizing on their newfound audience through visits, the museum will have to wait for the go-ahead from county officials.
“As most museums and institutions like ours, we’re kind of at the mercy of the county,” Brown said. “Obviously we’re watching the key indicators for COVID cases, but really we’re waiting for the direction from our city leaders and the county health department.”
For now, fans of the aquarium can continue to enjoy outdoor exhibits as long as they wear masks and practice social distancing. These exhibits include the shark lagoon, stingray touching pools, penguins, seals and rainbow lorikeets. For online programming, fans can visit the aquarium’s website.