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Diving Different: Volunteer and Experience the OTHER Side of the Aquarium

(DiverWire) Here’s the second “Diving Different” stories from DiverWire contributor Lisa Mongy.

Last week, as I opened our new series for unique dive experiences in the New Year, the article started with aquariums. And here we are again. Why are they on my mind so much lately? I’ve come to the conclusion that perhaps divers have a secret gratitude towards aquariums. They invite the public at large into our world on a personal level. They inform and educate about the waters of the world and their communities. More than that, I think that many divers might have glimpsed their first love of the sea in an aquarium, maybe on a field trip or family vacation. I personally have many fond memories of trips to the Miami Seaquarium with my kids when they were young. As Embassies to the Sea, aquariums and divers are deeply entwined. To a certain extent, each relies on the other. It’s more of a symbiotic relationship than many know about, and few take part in.

Well 2013 is the year you change that and get in the tank.

As I teased last week, I recently had the pleasure of diving with two volunteer divers out of Long Beach, CA, Richard Curtin and Mike Drew. Richard and Mike were in the Keys on a dive vacation and we wound up diving on Blue Iguana Charters together. The friends told me about their volunteer work at the Aquarium of the Pacific at home in California. For more than three years, Richard, an attorney when he’s not busy feeding sharks and turtles, has logged an average of 200 dives per year in the tanks at the aquarium, originally learning about the opportunity through his dive instructor. Richard recruited his friend Mike, an IT consultant, more than a year ago and Mike now averages 60 volunteer dives per year as a safety diver. Richard gave me some insight into why they volunteer: The pair usually works the Wednesday night shifts, when groups host field trips and sleepovers in the aquarium in the Tropical Gallery. It’s one of the Aquarium’s most open forums and allows the kids to ask the handlers questions about the fish. A lot of the job satisfaction comes from fostering education for the kids. The tank also offers a unique experience in interacting with the fish. Richard tells me, “In the open water, fish are skittish and may not come up to you or let you approach. In the Aquarium, they come close for feeding and are more relaxed, conditioned to divers. We can observe the same fish and watch for changes. If we see something, we inform the Aquarium staff.” Mike also told me that a big perk for him is simply the chance to dive year-round.

The nitty-gritty of the volunteer work at the aquarium is fascinating. I spoke with Paul Dimeo, the Dive Safety Officer overseeing all the volunteer divers at the Aquarium. He told me the facility has an average of 800 volunteers per year, 174 of which are divers from all walks of life, ranging in age from 18 to 78. Also, the Aquarium of the Pacific has such an outstanding safety record that it’s used as a model for other Aquariums.

The volunteer divers work in crews of 10 per shift with three shifts a day: roughly brunch, lunch, and dinner. Working at the aquarium is fun and rewarding work, but the guys informed me, it’s also quite rigorous. Divers work in teams of three in each tank, a point diver and two safety divers. The tanks are also surveyed 24/7 by webcams. When changing between tanks during feedings, divers must stop to shower and thoroughly rinse their gear to avoid carrying contaminants between exhibits.

Before even getting in the water, all divers must be Advanced Open Water Certified and Rescue Diver Certified. In each of the three-man teams, the point diver utilizes an Underwater Communications Device (requiring Full Mask Certification, of course) during feedings to interact with a presenter outside of the tank using a script, and also answering questions from visitors to the aquarium. The diving conditions are so safe and ideal that film crews often use the opportunity to practice underwater photography and scenes with safety divers present. The guys tell me that the work available to volunteers at the aquarium is extremely varied. Besides the feedings, they help test equipment, clean the exhibits and help on the dry side as well. Lastly, even if you don’t have time to commit to volunteering, you can dive in the Aquarium of the Pacific’s new Dive Immersion experience.

All of this, a giant world of diving I hadn’t put much thought into before, came from a simple conversation during a surface interval on a boat. In the New Year, I think one of the best ways to kick off your new diving experience is do something for yourself that also helps others. Look into your local aquarium and find out what volunteer programs they offer. Most can always use more help, and if for some reason their rooster is full, you can get on a waiting list.

Volunteering greatly supports the aquariums that spread the love of the sea to our communities. For our more northern or land-locked readers, they offer great chances to dive in the winter as well. And don’t think it stops with aquariums, there are a plethora of dive-related volunteer opportunities out there, some of which we’ll highlight in future stories. I’ll end with this note. One of the best ways you can dive different is to dive with purpose.

Volunteer in the New Year — and do it UNDERWATER!