Ask most young children what they want to be when they grow up, and one week they'll say a doctor or a soldier or a teacher, and the next week it will be something completely different.
Not Bryan McNeil — the 1999 Penns Manor Area High School graduate decided he wanted to be a marine biologist when he was just 5.
"I was watching 'Jaws' at my aunt's house, and that was that," McNeil said. "I wanted so badly to dive and study sharks."
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Although becoming a marine biologist seemed to be an unusual career choice for a boy growing up in "landlocked Indiana County," as McNeil describes it, he had the full support of his parents, David and Darlene "Wink" McNeil, of Clymer. McNeil was able to follow his dream and now works as an aquarium biologist at the Seattle Aquarium.
"Mom and Dad did everything they could to help me," he said. "They taped every marine special they could find on television, took me to aquariums where they encouraged me to ask questions, and found books, mostly about sharks, at the library."
In 2003, McNeil received a degree in marine biology from Waynesburg University, which offered a combined curriculum with Florida Institute of Technology and included an internship with the PPG Aquarium in Pittsburgh. After working for one year at Moody Gardens Aquarium in Galveston, Texas, McNeil was offered the position in Seattle, so he and his wife, Amanda Oswalt McNeil, a 2000 Penns Manor graduate, moved to Suquamish, Wash.
McNeil said his wife, a third-grade teacher and graduate student, has been as supportive as his parents in his career choice, even when it involved a cross-country move.
"She knew what she was signing up for," McNeil said, "so off we went."
McNeil's job as a biologist includes charting the health and well-being of the animals at the aquarium, planning exhibits and taking part in diving expeditions to gather sea life, including juvenile fish, shrimp, crabs and sea anemones, for the aquarium's collection.
The collection trips involve about six diving trips each year, mostly in Neah Bay in the Pacific Ocean near the Puget Sound. The trips are conducted from a 24-foot boat owned by the aquarium, and McNeil said "that boat can get freaky when we are out in the bay."
"The boat just gets thrown around by the waves and swells," McNeil said. "Sometimes the waves are above the boat."
McNeil describes the underwater structures in the bay as "sheer and dramatic, creating difficult currents to dive in and a wonderful diversity and display of life. The conditions are very harsh and challenging, but so rewarding."
Every two years the biologists travel to Hawaii to gather sea life in the area. McNeil said the diving in Oahu is gorgeous. "Come on, it's Hawaii!" he said. "The animals are fast and catching them is a challenge. The logistics of coordinating everything to ship the animals back to Washington are fun challenges as well."
The Seattle Aquarium hosts an annual Ocean Career Day, where McNeil talks about how he got into his career and what it entails, as well as introducing visitors to the idea of becoming a volunteer or an intern at the aquarium.
"I always love doing this event," McNeil said. "I get to give real answers to students about how to make it in the marine bio world."
The aquarium also includes a permanent shark cage on a pier located behind the facility, where the biologists conduct research of the shark population in Puget Sound. Biologists do a "bait set," where they try to entice the shark closer to the cage by putting out carcasses of salmon and halibut. One diver is in the cage, which is open in the back and top, tagging the shark or taking biopsy samples to monitor their health, while "safety" divers stay outside looking out for the diver in the cage. McNeil was introduced quickly to the excitement of the cage shortly after starting work in Seattle.
"They had me going down to observe because I was the new guy, just to watch how the divers worked," McNeil said. "We have a communication system in our masks, and the lookout diver was calling sharks off to the north. I was thinking, 'Are you serious?' So I turned to look and a 10-foot shark swam right by my face."
"It was super awesome — this is what I've been waiting for since I was a little kid!"