A Day in the Life of an Aquarium Volunteer Diver
Aquarium Volunteer Diver, Aquarium of the Pacific & Docent, Greater Los Angeles Zoo Association
Long Beach and Los Angeles, CA
As zoo docents, we are an important part of the guest experience. We are able to share our love of the animals and our commitment to the environment by providing information to the guests about the animals they see in the exhibits.
As dive volunteers at the Aquarium of the Pacific, we are one of the animals guests are observing in the exhibits. Being a dive volunteer is a unique way to share with guests our love of animals and introduce them to the wonders of the ocean.
Becoming a Volunteer Diver
I got involved with the Aquarium kind of through the Zoo. I had been a docent at the LA Zoo in 1994. In the fall of 1997, the volunteer coordinator at the LA Zoo left the Zoo to become the volunteer coordinator for the Aquarium of the Pacific, which was being built. I sent her a note of congratulations and included an article I had found about an aquarium and its volunteer diver program. I said if the Aquarium planned to have volunteer divers, I would be interested.
As it turns out, a volunteer diver program was in the plans. Not long afterwards, I got a call from the Dive Coordinator. I started volunteering there in January of 1998. The Aquarium had not opened yet. There was no dive locker – we used an empty cargo container out back store gear and change clothes. We had to wear hard hats when walking in and around the building because it was under construction. We were delighted when the Aquarium opened in June of 1998.
It has been a blast ever since then. Diving at the Aquarium has given me another way to share my love of animals and passion for the natural world with others. I have been diving since 1989. Every time I go into the ocean, I am amazed and filled with wonder.
So the Aquarium of the Pacific’s mission statement captures this idea: “To instill a sense of wonder, respect, and stewardship for the Pacific Ocean, its inhabitants, and ecosystems.”
Typical Day – Overview
When we arrive for our shift, we get things ready for the day: fill rinse buckets, set out microphone cords and underwater recall devices, make sure the fill station is ready to fill tanks, and set up our personal dive gear.
There is a structured schedule of dive presentations and tasks that need to be done. We assign tasks to each diver. Between dives, we rinse gear in fresh water and rinse ourselves in the shower. This is to prevent cross contamination between exhibits. We also fill scuba tanks and wash feeding buckets.
At the end of our shift we: rinse and put away our gear, rinse and put away scrub
brushes, fill the scuba tanks with air, and empty and refill the rinse buckets.
Typical Day – Details
As a dive volunteer, how do I get to share that passion with other people? The main way divers communicate with visitors in through the underwater presentations. There are nine dive presentations every weekday and eleven dive presentations on weekends.
We call these presentations. Marketing found that visitors referred to them as “shows” and that “presentation” has an educational and boring connotation.
Visitors want to see shows. So the schedule lists the times of all the shows.
The only way a scuba diver can talk to people who are on the other side of the window is by using the special mask that is connected to the sound system. And someone has to turn their microphone on.
We try to make the presentations a conversation between the dry side presenter and the diver. There is a script, but we don’t strictly stick to it. If a shark swims right in front of the window, you want to take the opportunity to talk about what the guests can see, not ignore it just to stick to a script.
The dry side presenter leads the conversation. They have the hard job of making sure to include the important topics and adding smooth transitions between topics. We follow their lead and answer questions.
Of course, feeding is the most fun part of the job. It is probably the biggest difference in zoo volunteering and aquarium volunteering. At the Zoo, I don’t get to feed, touch, or interact with the animals. (Although some volunteers do.)
Staff and volunteers weigh and prepare food for the animals in a spotless food prep room. There is a walk-in refrigerator and freezer. The animals get restaurant quality frozen seafood.
When you have a fish tank at home, you probably sprinkle in food from the top. In a large aquarium that won’t work – only the fast and aggressive fish would get to eat. So we target feed. There is a schedule of who gets fed when. There is always a scatter feeder who distracts the fast aggressive fish away from the slow or shy eaters.
Fish may not be the most intelligent animals, but they are smart when it comes to food. I have decided that we have not train them. In fact, they have trained us.
We log our dives in the computer and there is a section to report on the feeding. We indicate which species we fed, percent that population that ate, and how aggressively they ate. This helps the aquarist keep tabs on the feeding and make adjustments if needed.
This may sound like the worst job, but it is not. There is something kind of Zen about floating weightless, surrounded by beautiful fish. It is quiet, except for your own breathing. It is gratifying to see the result of your efforts. We all take pride in the Aquarium and want to see it looking its best.
Some diver teams come in just to clean. There are two dive teams a day, seven days a week. On four evenings there are teams that come in when the Aquarium is closed and there are no guests and no feedings. They just clean.
We use scrub brushes, diapers, toothbrushes, and scrub pads. We have power washers, as well.
Our fourth major job is what we like to call being the eyes and ears for the aquarists. In the exhibits, we are up close and personal with the animals. We can see if a fish has a cut or a bite, cloudy eyes. or tiny parasites on it. If there is a problem, we call the aquarist who can take a look at it. The Aquarium has one vet on staff.
We also notice how fish are acting. We’ve come to learn that fish have personalities. They have habits and routines. So if a fish is behaving in a way that is not normal for it, we will also let the aquarist know.
Making a Connection
At the Aquarium, the divers are part of the exhibit. If you’ve ever wondered how the zoo animals feel in the exhibit with people staring and waving at them, this is it. Divers have to keep in mind that we are being watched all the time.
We always enjoy interacting with the guests. Our job involves a lot of waving, giving high fives, and posing for pictures.
The reason divers are so popular with kids is that they can interact with us. They can get a response from us and make a connection. I believe that making a connection with a diver helps the visitors make a connection with the ocean. That connection is a step to helping to fulfill the Aquarium’s mission:
“To instill a sense of wonder, respect, and stewardship for the Pacific Ocean, its
inhabitants, and ecosystems.”