By William Hageman
Cheryl Mell’s road to Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium seems almost preordained.
As a kid growing up in Morton Grove, Ill., she was never able to have the most common pets.
“Both my sisters and my mother have allergies to dogs and cats,” she says, sitting in her office at the Shedd, where she is senior vice president for global field expeditions and conservation ambassador. “(My interest) truly started with a pair of carnival goldfish. Salt and Pepper, one white, one black. So at a young age I got into fish.”
She had an aquarium by the time she was in the fourth grade, and by seventh grade she knew she wanted to study marine biology. By her junior year of high school, she was scuba diving.
Mell went off to the University of Miami, where she received her bachelor of science degree in biology and marine science in 1989 and a master of science in education, biology and secondary education in 1991.
In an interesting twist, while doing undergrad work she spent a lot of time on the Shedd’s research ship, the Coral Reef II, which the University of Miami leased.
“I came back after grad school and stopped in Chicago to see family,” Mell says. “On my bed was an ad, cut out of the paper, for an educator at the Shedd. … I applied as soon as I saw the position.”
She got the job and has been at the Shedd for 24 years. It has been a wonderful relationship.
“I’m so lucky,” she says. “My passions are education and marine life. To bring the two together, it doesn’t get any better.”
During a recent visit in her office, Mell, 47, talked about her time at the Shedd and three of her favorite topics: conservation, education and travel. This is an edited transcript of the conversation.
Q: Is aquatic conservation what you consider your area of expertise?
A: Yes, it’s one of my focuses. This is my seventh job here. I always say the Shedd was a good fit for me, and I was a good fit for the Shedd. I’m a marine educator at heart.
Q: Your bio mentions that part of your job is providing travel opportunities. What kind of travel do you have a hand in?
A: I work a lot with tourism businesses. Right now, we’re working with New Brunswick in Canada. We love to take Shedd Aquarium members to these beautiful sites. For the most part, our audience has been members or friends of members. We recently had a woman who brought a friend, a musician (she met at a CSO concert), and she went on the Amazon trip. What I loved, she saw things with the eye of an artist.
Q: And you’re also reaching out to younger people.
A: This year, for the first time, we’re doing a trip aimed at millennials, open just to people 21 to 35 years old. It’s to Cancun, and they will swim with whale sharks. Here’s this group of young professionals who are so excited to get in the water with the largest shark in the world. What’s killing me: I planned it, but I don’t qualify in the age group.
Q: Whale sharks?
A: They go to Cancun in the summer to feed on plankton. The divers will go in the water, a pair at a time.
Q: Do people in that age group present any special challenges?
A: Millennials want short trips, with a price point not to go over $1,800. But they want Wi-Fi in their hotel, so they can brag to their friends.
Q: You have been to seven continents and have seen some amazing things. How do you maintain a sense of wonderment, curiosity?
A: It comes much easier than you expect. You meet fellow travelers: “Where do you go next?” “Did you go down that street?” The travel community just inspires. I have visited almost 100 countries. But it’s not about a checklist. I love traveling because it broadens my horizons. I do a lot of conservation travel. It settles me, gives me an appreciation.
Q: Do you have a favorite spot?
A: For aquatic life, animals, the Galapagos Islands. The animals have no fear. It’s phenomenal. You can get right up to them. The other place is the Peninsula Valdes, off the coast of Argentina. There are whales, rookeries of penguins. We climbed a lighthouse and saw orcas going by. At almost the end of the day, we saw a herd of elephant seals on the beach. It was there I had an aha moment. I slipped and fell on the beach _ all these small pebbles. And the pebbles were warm. No wonder the seals lie on that beach.
Q: Where are you going next?
A: In August we’re going to Borneo. We’re going there to scout it out. We’re partnering with Brookfield Zoo on this. They have experts on orangutans; Shedd has experts on coral. We’re looking at a 10- or 12-day trip in 2017. I think there are a lot of Shedd members who would like to make that trip.
Q: People taking one of your trips will see things that fascinate them. How do they make the leap to “I want to do something to help?”
A: A lot of the magic comes from the trip leaders. There’s always a Shedd staffer on each trip. They hear a leader talk so passionately about an endangered fish, and maybe they can’t save that fish, but they can do something when they get home.
Q: Educate themselves? Teach their children? Any books or videos you recommend?
A: I joke because I’m a 47-year-old woman who watches Channel 7 (WLS-TV) Saturday mornings to see all the animal programming. A great way (to do something is) the Great Lakes Action Days (a Shedd initiative to restore habitat; several events are scheduled from July to October). There are beach cleanups, or you go out and capture amphibians, you test waters. (But) there are a lot of good organizations, a lot of ways to get involved.
Q: After we’re done here, you’re going diving in the “Wild Reef” exhibit. Is that for fun?
A: It’s a working dive. We dive several days a week. It’s a cleaning and feeding dive.
Q: What’s it like?
A: There are leopard sharks, Napoleon wrasse (also called humphead wrasse) and a green sawfish named Ginsu. She makes her beds, she has two, on the bottom. We go to the bottom and smooth the gravel. We literally make her bed. Feeding them is fun, but making Ginsu’s bed is my favorite part of it.
Q: What is your favorite exhibit at the Shedd?
A: I actually have two, both in “Wild Reef.” I love the garden eels because, as a diver, I can tell you that seeing them in the wild can be tricky since they duck down into the sand very fast. At Shedd, you have the opportunity to see them fully and at eye level. The second are live algae and coral habitats, just past the main shark exhibit. They are so beautiful. It’s so magical to see live coral and algae with bright fish swimming by.
Q: Do you have any other favorite animals?
A: The manta ray. They can grow up to 20 feet long, but they are actually beautiful gentle giants. I’ve been lucky enough to see them in the wild, and I was so moved by their grace and beauty that I actually got a tattoo of one while I was in Tahiti.
Q: What do you do when you’re not working?
A: I’m not married, no kids, but I have six nieces and nephews. I’m referred to as cool Auntie Cheryl. They’ve come here all their lives. Sleepovers, everything. Summertime is a good time for me. I’m an avid kayaker. I’m on the river all the time. I live next to Wrigley Field, so my dog, Fozzie Bear, and I spend a lot of time at the Wilson Avenue beach. I spend a lot of time with family and friends. I live by that Southport Corridor, with a lot of great restaurants.
Q: What kind of music do you listen to?
A: I kick it old school. Van Morrison, Steely Dan, James Taylor.
Q: Are there any must-see places you haven’t seen yet?
A: I’m dying to go to India. And Papua New Guinea and Madagascar. But for all of them, I’d need a minimum of three weeks.