One of my happiest childhood memories is of a family outing to Marineland of the Pacific on the Palos Verdes Peninsula. The one image that sticks out in bright sharp color is that of their grand centerpiece aquarium. It had masses of big swirling fish including large sharks and a real deep-sea diver! The diver fed the fish while I pressed my face against the window in fascination. I almost screamed with delight when that diver came over to smile at me separated only by a thin veil of glass, a foot or two of water, and dozens of fish. That, I said to myself, was going to be me. Only a few short years later I started freediving and then got scuba certified and I was off exploring the ocean’s wide realms.
But just recently I also lived out another dream — to become that diver on the other side of the Plexiglas staring back at the faces of delighted children. I waved and they waved back. Many had their noses smashed against the window, just as I’d done ages ago. Reaching out and putting my hand against the Plexiglas they would do the same to match mine. Infants in arms to teens to child-like adults were wide-eyed with wonder. The experience was remarkable.
Let’s not forget about the hundreds of brightly colored fish swirling about. Watching the kids I realized that while they were looking at me, they spent much more time gazing at the ocean life spread on a canvas before them. So I turned my attention to what they were looking at and it was indeed quite incredible. There were fish of every color and size, placid and friendly and easy to approach. I could easily observe behaviors and the fine details of their faces and bodies. You could just kick back and let them come to you.
My dream came to life in the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, the tropical exhibit to be specific. The Aquarium of the Pacific is considered to be one of the world’s premier aquariums. It does, after all, represent the world’s largest ocean. Three Pacific marine environments are represented here — California, the Northwest, and tropical Pacific. Since the aquarium’s inception diver docents have entered these environments to explain to aquarium visitors what they were seeing from a unique point of view, the inside out. Volunteer divers were also accepted and trained to clean exhibits and feed fish.
Now, through a unique program, ordinary certified divers can submerge into one of the aquariums most popular exhibits — Blue Corner, the main focus of the Aquarium’s tropical Pacific exhibit. At 350,000 gallons, the exhibit can easily handle up to four divers at once. Youth as young as 15 can join in the fun (with a companion adult guardian).
Participants are first given a behind-the-scenes tour of the inner workings of the aquarium including filters, water treatment, fish food processing, animal nursery, quarantine, hospital and more. A large section is the dive locker. Every aspect of this operation is taken very seriously both for the safety of the divers and the animals. Divers are assigned a specially trained guide (a Divemaster or Instructor) who oversees the entire dive process including acting as a guide underwater.
The program is not free of charge, but it is a lot cheaper than the airfare to the tropical Pacific! All gear is provided, including a camera, but you are welcome to bring your own camera, wet suit, mask and booties. All gear supplied is state of the art. Only a 3-mm suit is needed for the 78-degree F water. Hoods are required (supplied) for head protection, keeping contamination to a minimum, and to guard from fish that sometimes nip at hair. Gloves are also required. The “coral” in the aquarium consists of authentic-looking reproductions; touching is not encouraged but also not totally forbidden.
Divers will swim with masses of fish including bonnethead sharks, huge Australian groupers, schools of jacks, moray eels, rays, angels, butterfly fish, big zebra sharks, and many more I simply don’t know their names. A recent addition is a large juvenile Napoleon wrasse. There are over 1,000 fish in this display alone. And a placid turtle as well.
After a cold winter we all deserve a little tropical diving. If you can’t jet off for a few weeks, consider diving in the tropics closer to home–the Aquarium of the Pacific. When you do, remember to smile and wave, because you might just be inspiring the next generation of ocean explorers.
The Aquarium of the Pacific is located at 100 Aquarium Way, Long Beach, CA 90802. To learn more about the Dive Immersion program at the Aquarium of the Pacific, visit www.aquariumofpacific.org and click on the “Dive Immersion” link. To make a reservation, phone (562) 590-3100. The program runs from 3:00 pm to 5:00 pm daily. Proof of certification is required. Reservations are required and restrictions may apply.