His “day at the office” can involve swimming with sharks and cleaning inside a piranha tank.
But it is dream job for a man whose passion for the underwater world was fired as a small boy watching the movie Jaws.
Darren “Daz” Gook, 32, is senior marine biologist at the Sea Life Centre in his home town of Great Yarmouth.
“When I was three or four I watched Jaws and thought the scientist’s job finding the shark was cool. Some children might have been scared, but I was captivated,” he explained.
Childhood beachcombing included “getting carried away” exploring Gorleston beach with his dad a couple of years later – when he got lost, sparked a major search and got into big trouble.
“I remember having a lot of fun – but that afterwards my backside hurt!” he recalled. “It did not put me off. I was shark crazy. The bedroom I shared with my brother was half full of Tottenham Hotspur posters and half with pictures of Great White sharks and things to do with the sea.”
Schoolboy Daz did work experience at the Sea Life Centre and was a weekend volunteer – helping to feed fish, prepare food and test water – then had a part-time job in the education team, giving talks.
And, when he gained his Marine Biology degree in 2005, there was job vacancy at the centre “through fate and perfect timing”, he explained.
Having started as an aquarist (fish keeper) he has risen to head the team in a job that has also seen him help rescue stranded seals on the nearby sands, dash to help the storm-ravaged sister centre at Hunstanton, and take part in conservation project in the Maldives.
This summer Daz spent a week at the islands in the Indian Ocean as part of crew tackling the problem of reef loss through “coral bleaching” – the phenomenon, also affecting Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.
Despite it being an idyllic setting, he spent the time “in a tent, on an uninhabited island, during the worst rain for 10 years.”
The work involved snorkel surveys of man-made metal and resin frames being sunk to replace the stricken reef, and trialling new sustainable ways of fish harvesting in a drive to stop locals damaging stocks using cyanide and dynamite to stun shoals.
“It was a real highlight and next year we are adding a Maldives-themed tank at our centre to explain the threats to reefs and Sea Life’s role in helping protect them. And I will be on hand to talk to visitors about it.”
Three years ago he was involved in helping clear up sea surge damage at the Hunstanton Sea Life Centre, including temporarily re-homing creatures during a rebuild then re-stocking.
Back at the day job Daz enjoys showcasing exhibits that entertain and educate visitors. The creatures range from a 45 kilo (99lb), 1.2m (4ft) long Amazonian Pacu to tiny 5cm (2in) long reef fish. His favourites – apart from the obvious sharks that started it all – are the jellyfish.
“They have no brain, no heart, no blood and no eyes, but they have survived millions of years and they are mesmerising to watch,” he said.
Visitors are often surprised to learn about the rich variety of marine life in the waters off the Great Yarmouth shore.
“You cannot see the fish because it is normally brown water but there are so many species out there including sharks, rays, harbour porpoises, whale and turtles.”
The seabed bases of offshore wind turbines visible through the centre windows are becoming refuges for marine life. And a beach forming in the nearby Outer Harbour has also become home to seals.
Mr Gook added: “Our centre is not just a fun day out. We are here to educate – such as showing that sharks are not villains, but unsung heroes whose place at the top of the food chain is vital to the sustainability of the ocean.”
Daz’s tasks also involve:
- Feeding fish to the penguins, whose diet is carefully recorded to monitor their health.
- Putting plankton food into the jellyfish tanks.
- Catching and weighing West African dwarf crocodiles.
- Stepping into the piranha tank for cleaning duties knowing that they won’t eat him alive because they are not a big enough group nor hungry enough.
“It is not a 9 to 5 job. Every day is different. And it can be hard – when the creatures you care for die – but it is so rewarding,” he added.
‘A Drop in the Ocean’ is a short film on the Greater Yarmouth Tourism website showing Darren’s role and his passion for marine life.
The films have been made through the Greater Yarmouth Tourism and Business and Improvement Area team, which seeks to boost the local economy by attracting more visitors to the area.
Its chairman Gareth Brown said: “Darren’s story shows the kind of passion and expertise we have among the people behind our local attractions and accommodation, which enriches the experience of visitors to our area.”