SOUTH KINGSTOWN — It’s a love story unlike most: University of Rhode Island animal science instructor Justin Richards and his wife Carey, a Mystic Aquarium trainer and researcher, met 20 years ago when both worked at the aquarium.
The couple has spent the last 14 years of their marriage deeply involved in Mystic Aquarium’s mission to protect the ocean. Carey is a member of the professional animal care team at the aquarium and Justin is a visiting assistant professor, teaching at URI’s animal science department.
“We collaborate a lot now,” Justin said. “Carey manages the team that works with the whales, and I work directly with Carey to coordinate sample collection and observe the whales. It’s kind of neat to be able to collaborate on that level.”
They are also adoring parents to an eight-year-old boy who, they said, is clearly an up-and-coming marine biologist.
The couple’s story began 20 years ago at the aquarium.
“I was a beluga whale trainer and Justin was a volunteer,” Carey said.
“I started as a volunteer my freshman year of college,” Justin added. “I only saw her every once in awhile. I wanted to be an animal trainer just like she was.”
He worked closely with Tracy Romano, chief scientist and vice president of biological research at Mystic Aquarium, and one of North America’s leading beluga experts.
Justin and Carey started working together and getting to know each other gradually when he would come in every Saturday to learn about marine animal training from her. The following year, Justin became an intern with the beluga whale team, coming to the aquarium five days a week. Carey had moved to the California sea lion area, but they had mutual friends at the aquarium and saw more of each other.
A few years later, Justin proposed to Carey with the help of a sea lion. Carey was working the sea lion shows at the time, and Justin worked with her boss, in secret, to train Carey’s favorite sea lion to bring a baton with the engagement ring tied to it out to her.
“Unbeknownst to me, obviously,” Carey said. “It was Labor Day weekend, it was a packed house and all of our friends and family were there, that I didn’t know about until it was happening. It was awesome.”
Justin said the sea lion “reluctantly” came out with the ring.
“He came out and everyone started cheering, and he was like, ‘Wait, what am I doing,’ and scooted back. But then he came back out and brought it to Carey and it was great.”
The couple exchanged their vows at Blue Shutters, the Charlestown beach where the aquarium routinely releases seals and sea lions back into the wild.
“There were no seals released that day, although people have said there should have been,” Carey said.
Together, both remain passionate about their critical conservation work with endangered beluga whales, sea lions and other marine animals.
Carey, the supervisor of Cetaceans and Pinnipeds at the aquarium, works with a variety of marine animals including beluga whales, California sea lions, Northern fur seals, Steller sea lions, harbor seals and African penguins.
Her main responsibilities include daily care and training of the beluga whales and harbor seals. The most important part of her job is training the belugas and seals veterinary behaviors that allow the animals to participate in their own health care. She also assists with the day-to-day supervision of the team of trainers that care for the aquarium’s marine mammals.
As a research scientist in residence at the aquarium, Justin is based at URI’s Kingston campus. He left his job at the aquarium to attend graduate school and then joined the URI faculty before being named a scientist in residence at the aquarium.
He conducts important studies on non-invasive research methods and beluga reproductive behavior, with the ultimate question of how belugas select mates and how that behavior could impact population dynamics. His ongoing research will allow marine biologists to learn from aquarium belugas what would be logistically impossible to do in the wild.
“(Justin) jokes that I taught him how to feed his first whale,” Carey said. “But for Justin to be able to come in and collect samples and do diagnostics with the animals, with me managing that whole system is kind of cool. It’s kind of come full circle.”