I’ve been bitten a lot,” Tara Gearin says.
A trunkfish left the perfect outline of its mouth on the back of Gearin’s neck last year when she had an internship in the 20,000-gallon tank behind The Mirage reception desk. “It looked like a tattoo,” she says.
Then she proudly raises a finger to show off a small scar where an endangered Asian Arowana got a piece of her. “Who else can say they’ve been bitten by an Asian Arowana?” the 29-year-old says. “It’s awesome.”
Gearin grew up riding on her parents’ Christmas tree farm in eastern Oregon. It was her love of horses that sent her to Oregon State University on the pre-veterinary track. She’d planned to be a horse trainer when an oceanography course led to an even greater passion for sea creatures. But even with a degree, aquarium work is hard to come by without experience, so when Mandalay Bay’s Shark Reef had an opening for an education assistant in 2006, Gearin packed her bags for Las Vegas.
She loves stingrays—they’ve got sparkling personalities, she says—and sharks, too, but eels make her a little nervous. She became intimate with several sharp-toothed varieties when she cleaned Shark Reef’s tanks until 2008. “I had the glass right here”—she holds her hand inches from her face—“and had eels, like, right here.” She pulls her hand in even closer.
Last summer, she landed the internship at The Mirage, where she helped feed and care for the fish, maintain the pumps and ensure the water quality. Passionate about the aquarium industry’s overall mission to improve the health and well-being of the fish, the scuba-certified Gearin was thrilled with the gig. “I got to give a green eel an antibiotic. Very cool!” But upon learning of the plight of the desert tortoise—listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act—Gearin’s found a new calling. In February, she climbed out of the tank to accept a biologist’s position with B&E Consulting, a Las Vegas-based biological consulting agency working to maintain a balance between desert conservation and community growth.
Gearin helps to clear sites—she recently came across a hatchling “about the size of a silver dollar”—before construction projects begin. She inspects tortoise fencing that prevents them from wondering onto highways. She also educates the workers about the tortoise’s ongoing loss of habitat.
“You would be amazed by how hard it is for the tortoise to survive!” she says, with the passion of a girl love-bitten again.