FOR HUNDREDS of visitors to the aquarium on Skidaway Island over the years, meeting Clifford the Spiny Lobster was a highlight of the trip. For over 15 years, until this past spring, Clifford lived in one of the tanks in the aquarium gallery and seemed to thrive as much on human attention as on the shrimp that he ate each day.
“You don’t think of invertebrates and crustaceans as having personalities, but some of our fish do, and Clifford did,” says Bob Williams, acting director of the Marine Education Center and Aquarium (MECA). “You could scratch his head and he’d grasp your hand in his [leg].”
Unlike their Maine counterparts, spiny lobsters don’t have pinching claws.One day during curator Sue Finkle’s first year at the aquarium, she was deep in conversation leaning on the edge of Clifford’s tank in the “behind the scenes” feeding area.
“I felt something tapping on my shoulder and when I turned my head there he was,” says Finkle. “It was like he was saying, ‘Hey guys, I want to be a part of this.’”
The lobster’s friendliness earned him his name, bestowed by a visiting middle school group raised on the “Clifford the Big Red Dog” books. Over the years, Clifford would swim toward the glass or up to the surface of his tank to hang out with humans, even crawling out of the tank on one occasion to follow a couple of startled electricians.
In captivity, spiny lobsters can live up to 30 years, but last fall Clifford’s health began to fail. On March 10 staff found Clifford “dead at the bottom of the tank,” says Finkle.Two weeks later, a handful of aquarium staff, interns, and boat captains boarded the research vessel Sea Dawg for Clifford’s burial at sea.
“It was a joyous occasion to celebrate his life,” says Finkle. After three eulogies, “Cindy [Lingebach] and I dropped him back into the ocean,” weighed down with fossils so he wouldn’t float, she says.
Word went out in the marine biology network that the aquarium was seeking another spiny lobster. In late June, a researcher donated a new lobster to the aquarium.
“Once you do research you can’t put them back into the wild,” says Finkle.
The new critter, named Clifford Junior in honor of his predecessor, made his debut in the display tanks this month.
“He’s been very interested in running up to the glass. He’s following in the footsteps of Clifford Senior,” says Finkle, who still seems to miss the old guy.
“I cried,” she says. “I’m not gonna lie. I shed a tear. He was a blast to have around.”