You already know Hope don’t you? A popular influencer, Hope is a little miracle of a turtle who is widely followed and lives in New Jersey with her caretaker, Mike. Mike goes by @aquamike23 on Instagram and has close to 240K followers. Hope is a huge deal in the animal world as you’re about to find out. Not only is she an influencer, she’s going to be raising money for Turtle conservation. Mike gets rather animated when he talks about Hope. I was chatting with Mike as I wrote this article. He was nervous about a call that was scheduled with Dodo tomorrow.
What is Hope’s history and how did she come to live with you?
Hope was born in fall of 2018, she was only about a month old when the breeder reached out to me to see if I’d be interested in trying to take care of her.
What is the defect she was born with and what do you have to do differently for her than a normal turtle?
Hope was born with an exposed heart. There isn’t a diagnosis for it in turtles but it’s called ectopia cordis in humans. All turtles are born with an opening in their shells where their yolk sac is but once that’s absorbed their shell closes up and appears normal. The area where this happens is just below where the opening is on Hopes shell, so it is not the same spot. A lot of people get that confused. Hope need a lot more water changes in her tank compared to a normal turtle and I have to make sure the environment is especially safe. No sharp corners or rough edges.
Why were you picked to care for hope?
The breeder knew that she would require special care and would be best in the hands of an experienced fish keeper who knows that water quality is of the utmost importance. Without the natural protection of the shell over her heart, this area is especially vulnerable to infection. A lot of turtle keepers don’t practice pristine water quality and he had too much to keep up with to give Hope the care that he knew she required and deserved.
Hope the celebrity
Early on I decided to get her drawn as a character and made stickers and shirts. Her story of defying the odds and living like there’s nothing wrong really resonated with people because of the collaboration I did with The Dodo. Their video was so well done, it was a vital part in Hope (and I) becoming “famous.” The video got over 65 million views, it still blows my mind and makes me so happy that that many people got to really see who I am and my love and passion for animals, turtles, & aquatics.
As for the toy! A friend who I’d known for years reached out to see if I was interested in doing a Hope figure & Stuffed animal. He had just happened to start his own toy brand, manufacturing vinyl figures of his own character that he created called Abominable Toys. It really is fate that our paths aligned again like this all these years later. The toy & stuffed animal of Hope are both well along in the product development process and will be releasing later in 2020. The Hope figure will be raising money for turtle conservation. It’s all been a really special experience and makes me happy to be able to spread a positive message of Hope to the world & now to be able to provide a physical representation of that for people to have in their homes is so incredible.
$5 from every sale from the figure will support @turtleconservancy.
“We’re incredibly excited to team up with @aquamike23 to spread some Hope! We will have the Hope line available for pre-order within the next few months.” – Connor McConnell, abominabletoys.com
People call you Turtle Mike – how did that nickname come about?
Hahaha!! The people at my last job started calling me Turtle Mike because they had known me for years for my fish videos. Once my turtle videos started going viral and getting more attention than the fish I started posting mostly turtle content on my Instagram account. I got carried away and they were making fun of me for it. I don’t mind it, they’re not wrong. I always tell myself I need to post more fish, but I almost never do. I’m too much of a people pleaser & I know most of my followers are there for the turtles.
A little Turtle told us you have some reef tanks too?
Right now I have one reef tank running. I’m on a break from coral, I go in and out of being addicted (don’t we all).. I have mostly Mushrooms, Zoas, some Leathers, Duncans, Trumpets, Palys and GSP. I got a lot of my corals from friends which makes certain pieces very special to me. Most of my animals, including the corals, have a story behind them. I have a pair of Clownfish that were aqua-cultured at my previous job, and a Flame Hawkfish that I got when I got a free tank as long as I broke it down. It was the only fish and the whole family was really attached to it. They wanted to make sure it went to a good home.
Sandwich or Soup?
I appreciate both too much to decide. When I go to Panera I always do the Pick 2 and get half a sandwich and a soup!
What came first, the Turtle or the egg?
Hmm, it had to have been the egg right!?
Scariest moment with Hope
Honestly, the whole first week of having her I just didn’t know what to expect, if I’d wake up one day and she’d no longer be with us. Besides that it’s been very stable up until last night! A lot of turtles will flail their limbs and splash for attention, but Hope had never done this until last night! I shut all the lights off and was one room over and I heard frantic splashing. I could tell the sound was coming from her tank and I was scared that something was wrong but nothing was! She probably wanted more food because even though her light was off the light was on in the room over and she could probably hear me making noise.
Favorite saltwater fish and coral?
My favorite saltwater fish has to be Weedy Sea Dragons, I cannot wait until the day that I can fund that breeding project. Definitely on my bucket list and I really hope I can work with them because I’m super dedicated when it comes to really hard to keep rare fish. My favorite coral would have to be Bounce Mushrooms, I still have never owned one but one day I hope to have the funds to be able to collect them in every single color that exists.
Do you prefer planted tanks or community fish tanks?
That’s the hardest part about this hobby, I can appreciate every style of tank except for overcrowded ones or ones that are too small to house the species that are inside of them. Planted tanks, Community tanks, Monster tanks, Stingray tanks, Reef tanks, Fish only tanks, Seahorse tanks, Shrimp tanks, Betta tanks, I love them all equally.
If you could have any system, would it be a freshwater, saltwater or turtle habitat?
It would definitely be the Weedy Sea Dragon system. Such a dream set up, I really hope to be able to make it happen at some point in the futu
What’s next for Hope?
The toy, the stuffed animal, Ripleys Believe It or Not, I’m hoping to put out a children’s book once I can figure that out. I’m working on a follow up video with The Dodo so I’m very excited about that as well. Hope herself will be getting a tank upgrade in the near future! Going from a 40 breeder into a 90 gallon. The hardest part is figuring out the new basking area and what the safest option is.
Tell us a little bit about yourself. What do you do?
I’ve been keeping fish ever since I was 5 years old, my earliest memories of fish tanks were at my grandpas pet store when I was barely old enough to remember. My dad had a couple tanks at home and I just really found an appreciation for fish keeping. Maintaining them became stress relief just as much as watching them. Being responsible for the lives of these animals, still to this day, all these years later, gives me purpose and I just love it and live for it. I’ve worked at various local fish stores, in both retail and maintenance. Turning a hobby into a career has been very difficult. Especially in this niche as I’m sure many of the readers know first hand. I’m still trying to figure it out and I will, there is no plan B. I need to love what I do for a living and this is the only work that makes me happy and that I can do without watching the clock.
What kind of crazy messages do you get on IG? Is it difficult being an influencer?
I get all sorts of messages on Instagram! A lot of them are very repetitive about turtles and fish, illnesses, recommendations on medications and products, filters, lighting, set ups! I answer these questions every day with customers in real life so sometimes it’s really difficult to get home and see those same questions in my inbox. It’s a lot of repeating yourself over and over but you respond for the animals, you don’t want their owners making the wrong decisions or doing too much when the animals life is on the line. I’m working on creating educational story highlights for fish & turtles so that everyone who has questions can get answers from me without me having to directly respond. Managing a large Instagram account is more of a full time job than a full time job and you do it for free! Being an influencer has been rewarding but also detrimental at times.
Working with a lot of brands has been amazing. Getting the support from the companies who make this all possible for hobbyists is really special to me. The products that I receive from brands are sentimental to me and treasured. I could’ve never imagined having that kind of support in something I consider a passion. It makes me want to do better but at the same time creates a lot of pressure to perform. When I first started my Instagram account I didn’t expect any of this, I was just sharing whatever I wanted as a way to document photos and videos of my fish. Now with so many people watching, I have a responsibility to the animals and their caretakers and I’m doing my best to find the balance between creating fun, educational, and informative factual content.
Words of wisdom for hobbyists
Keep your water clean & feed a varied diet. Overdo it with filtration and water changes. Quarantine new fish before they go into your main system, if you don’t have a quarantine tank always inspect the fish at the retailer before taking them home, you never want to introduce parasites and disease into your system unknowingly. Most places unfortunately don’t quarantine long enough before they sell animals. You owe it to your pets to give them the best life possible.
As far as social media, let the passion speak for itself, if you love what you do people will pick up on that and they will support! Communicate emotion, it’s what connects people on a deeper level. Hashtags are your friend, use them, they can help you obtain virality. If you get lucky, one video going viral can create a domino effect and bring a lot of opportunity your way. I had a dozen or so viral videos which helped immensely in me getting to where I am today. It’s doesn’t happen overnight, even with a following, and a verified checkmark despite what you may believe, it takes a lot of hard work and dedication to build your own brand from the ground up. Where there’s a will there’s a way and if you’re like me and there is no plan B you’ll make it happen if you just don’t give up! This is the very beginning of aquatics influencers on social media. There’s still a ways to go and a lot to figure out in the space, but if I can get here you can too as long as you have the passion, the knowledge from experience, and the ability to share how it makes you feel. People are out there waiting to support you and their support can take you to heights you never could’ve imagined you’d be able to reach!
Mike is quite humble about his fastidious care of Hope. She’s doing well and is an inspiration to all. With everything that is going on right now with the pandemic, a little Hope goes a long way. Spread Hope!