2000-09 The Wild Underwater Indoors

By Karl Shreeves

“I’m beat,” my friend Donna said. It was 9:00p.m. on a weeknight and her voice carried fatigue far heavier than her typical day at the office.

“Whatcha been doing?”

“Wrestling sharks.”

Ah, yeah, that’ll wear you down a bit, I thought. “Do tell,” I encouraged.

“Three four-footers. Took three of us an hour. Those suckers are strong. Man, I’m sore.”

Before PETA starts screaming for names, maybe I should explain. Donna is a volunteer diver for the a local aquarium, and “wrestling” sharks isn’t really wrestling or abuse, but care and compassion. In this case, the Leopard Sharks needed to transfer to a holding tank to assure proper feeding and health.

Sounds like nothing to it, right? Just go catch the sharks, haul ’em out of the tank and splash ’em into another one, right? Well, here are the two rules of the game:

1. Divers must be gentle and caring, may not hurt the sharks in any way and may only use soft gloves and a special net.

2. Sharks must resist with all their might and may do anything they want, including dragging the divers, who have their hands full and therefore can’t equalize, up and down the water column as fast as possible.

As far as I can tell, the only reason the divers win is because it’s three against one, which still aren’t great odds when we’re talking about a shark.

If there’s ever been a diving activity that’s an odd mix, being a volunteer aquarium diver is it. It’s not open water, but it’s sure not a swimming pool, either. Twenty feet is a “deep” dive, but if it’s a kelp forest display, you’ll need a full wetsuit and may still get chilled after only an hour. Thirty minutes later, you’re wet again, only this time you’re in a shorty because you’d cook wearing a full suit in the tropical coral reef tank. Duties range from shark “wrestling” to cleaning the “coral” (to help preserve the real reefs, most aquariums don’t use real coral) to feeding the inhabitants.

It’s not recreational diving, but it’s not really commercial or research diving either. The reality is, aquarium diving is a breed all its own, with the volunteer aquarium divers as vital to the aquarium as the volunteer firefighter is to the small community fire department.

“Most aquariums run on tight budgets,” Donna explained. “So they rely on volunteer divers guided by a small paid staff of biologists and other professionals. Without the volunteers, they’d never keep up with the day-to-day maintenance.”

Or more likely, they’d have to hire all the divers, which costs and means the public pays more to visit. So beyond helping the aquarium, the volunteers actually make it possible for people to glimpse at the undersea world at an affordable price. Not that the volunteers don’t get something for their efforts; there’s more to diving in the not-quite-the-ocean, not-quite-a-pool.

“Unless you live in the tropics or something, you’d be hard-pressed to dive more conveniently in the middle of the week,” Donna explains. “I show up, slip into the gear that’s kept right there, do the dive, get out, wash it off and hang it up. Easier than live-aboard diving.”

And, there are the intangibles. Few divers other than the resort divemaster or a researcher get to know individual animals, seeing them again and again and learning their unique behaviors. Aquarium divers do, to the point that many of the “prominent citizens” have nicknames: “Be sure Waldo gets enough to eat tonight. Sparky keeps snitching his food.”

Aquarium divers also enjoy what they do beyond cleaning, feeding and relocating the tenants. They’re often part of the show, ranging from feedings for audiences to answering questions and giving information via full-face masks and communications gear.

Being an aquarium diver takes more than basic scuba qualification. It’s a specialized form of diving with unique demands.

“Aquariums need volunteers—and they really appreciate the help,” Donna said. “But you can’t expect to show up with your C-card one minute and be frolicking with the sea lions the next.”

Aquarium divers go through orientations, training, skill evaluations and usually have to be a Rescue Diver at minimum so they can function effectively without hurting themselves or the aquarium environment. For example, there’s more to feeding than dropping food in—you need to know which animals get how much of what. You always have to follow protocols for feeding and to prevent microorganisms from one tank transferring to another in wet dive gear.

But avid aquarium divers find the benefits and prestige worth it. And the bragging rights—after all, how many divers can claim they’ve “wrestled” a shark—much less as a regular part of diving they do every week?