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April 2009    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 24, No. 4   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Real Aquarium Diving

from the April, 2009 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

If you’re short on funds for a dive trip, here’s a good option: become a volunteer diver at the public aquarium nearest you. Many aquariums nationwide rely on recreational divers to help them with chores like fish feeding, coral cleaning and hosting live shows for their audiences. Most positions require only advanced openwater certification and 25 to 50 logged dives (some aquariums require rescue certification, and those with cold-water exhibits may want some dives to have been done in cold water). Big aquariums often have teams of 100-plus volunteer divers. Those advertising their open slots online include New York Aquarium in Brooklyn, Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta, Shedd Aquarium in Chicago and National Aquarium in Baltimore.

Time commitments range from a few hours to a couple of days per month and many volunteer divers stay on for years. Take Paula Di Flora, 56, who has volunteered at Kentucky’s Newport Aquarium for the past seven years. After taking first-aid certifications, a buoyancy test and written assessments, she did training dives in the Coral Reef exhibit, then progressed to the Amazon Flooded Forest, the Kelp Forest exhibit, and finally the ultimate 385,000-gallon “Surrounded by Sharks” exhibit. A typical tour of volunteer duty can include cleaning windows, vacuuming tanks, scrubbing algae off artificial coral, doing food prep and feeding animals. Di Flora also hosts live dive shows, speaking to the audience while in the tank. The aquarium’s biologists pull Di Flora off the roster to do special tasks like feeding animals in quarantine and getting new animals used to divers before being put into exhibits.

The Oregon Coast Aquarium in Newport offers a $225 three-day “Habitat Diver” course. Dive safety officer Vallorie Hodges says the course is crucial because volunteers are expected to become the eyes and ears of the aquarium’s staff above water. “We teach them underwater skills like diving the exhibits without fins, and evaluating whether an animal got too rambunctious the night before or if a female needs to be moved into the nursery. Being able to identify animals and tend to them is an important part of their duties.”

Di Flora says the rewards of being an aquarium volunteer go beyond spending time in the exhibit tanks. “When I go on dive trips now, my observance of animals in the wild is much better. I can find frogfish and octopus so much easier because I know what to look for. I’ve learned so much about aquatic life and their habits.” You may start off by just cleaning kelp but, she says, “every opportunity they give you as a volunteer is an experience to become a better diver overall.”

- - Ben Davison

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