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Learn to love the shark

Katy Rigby is an aquarist with a mission at Hull's new aquarium and lifelong learning centre. Heather Dixon talked to her

Eerily illuminated by imitation sunlight in deep water, Katy Rigby slowly turns to face the huge shadows. Within seconds, she is surrounded by some of nature's most feared creatures - a dozen species of shark measuring up to nine-and-a-half feet long.

Protected only by her dry suit and oxygen tank, 24-year-old Katy, one of the youngest female aquarists in the UK and one of only a handful to specialise in the care and study of sharks, reaches out to touch them with her bare hands.

By swimming jaw to jaw with unpredictable white tips and bonnet heads, she hopes to show the public the gentle side of these so-called monsters at the ambitious new aquarium and lifelong-learning centre, The Deep, in Hull, which opens on March 23.

"Sharks have a terrible reputation which is undeserved," says Katy. "They can be vicious but they won't attack without reason. My first dive with sharks was one of the most exciting experiences of my life. I am as happy swimming with sharks as I am watching the TV with my dog."

Katy's love affair with one of the ocean's most formidable predators began with a holiday job at the Deep Sea World Aquarium in Fife between her studies in microbiology at Scotland's Heriot Watt University. After giving presentations to the public about coral reefs, sharks and dolphins, her fascination with fish grew so rapidly that in her second year she changed direction and secured the last place on the marine biology course.

She was lucky. Spaces are limited to some 30 students a year and only a handful of UK universities offer the course. Those who secure a place can specialise in areas such as environmental toxicology, conservation, water pollution control, or aquatic science.

But Katy's career was to be slightly less conventional. After coming into contact with sharks in her final year ("I studied the feeding behaviour of two sand tiger sharks in captivity,"), she was offered a job at Deep Sea World.

There she learned basic husbandry of reptiles and amphibians, before promotion to senior aquarist with responsibilities for plumbing, planning, rock work, filtration systems and tank design. Two years ago, she qualified as a diver which allowed her to feed sharks under water in front of the public.

As part of her self development she joined 14 other volunteer researchers in the Bahamas, working for four weeks at a research station where she helped PhD students who were capturing and studying juvenile sharks.

By the time she returned to the UK, she had landed the post of senior aquarist at The Deep. Since joining the team, she has been involved in sourcing and studying jelly fish, setting up algae systems, investigating coral propagation and organising a National Aquarium workshop which brings together specialists from zoos and aquariums throughout the United Kingdom.

She leads a team of 10 aquarists responsible for the care and upkeep of thousands of stunning fish from around the world and studies the sharks, already a major public attraction.

"The more you learn the more you want to know," says Katy. "My main aim is to educate the public about the true nature of the shark. It just doesn't deserve its reputation as a killer of the deep."

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