Go From Catalina to Palau in 30 Minutes as a Volunteer Diver with the Aquarium of the Pacific

I entered slowly so as not to cause too much commotion. I winced as a trickle of 63-degree water slid down my back. The bottom lay 27 feet below. Pacific barracuda navigated the strands of kelp. A school of mackerel zoomed about while five white sea bass glided by. As I landed on the rocky bottom, several California halibut came over to check me out, pushing aside some shovelnose guitarfish. Two California moray eels peered out of holes. Leopard sharks cruised by on their endless patrol. Over my shoulder, two giant black sea bass hung against the rocks.

Suddenly, a voice crackled in my ear. “Good morning, Ken.” I looked up to see about 50 people, all in street clothes and standing on dry ground, staring back at me, watching intently. Was I narced? Was I dreaming? Is this an episode of “The Twilight Zone”?

Nope. It’s just the start of another day as a volunteer diver at the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach.

I’ve been privileged to be part of the Aquarium’s dive team since the start. From our modest beginnings, working out of a construction trailer in early 1998, the dive team at the Aquarium of the Pacific has grown to encompass over 130 divers working from an area that’s stocked with all the dive gear we need, a compressor, and locker rooms. As a group, we average 900 dives monthly, spending 450 hours in a dozen of the exhibits and habitats.

Each Thursday morning, I start off with a Catalina dive in the Blue Cavern exhibit and half an hour after that ends, I’m in Micronesia, cavorting with the residents of the 350,000-gallon Arco Tropical Reef, a replica of Blue Corner in Palau. (And there’s no jet lag.) My routine is pretty typical of what we all do. Over the course of a day, divers might find themselves diving with puffins or cavorting with sea lions, and it all makes for an interesting and exciting experience.

Another important task we perform is scrubbing algae off the repli-coral (a much nicer term than “fake coral”). The artificial coral not only looks real, but it helps avoid the ethical and ecological implications of removing living coral from a reef. Since the reef is man-made, brown algae has a surface to grow on, and that’s why you’ll see divers with brushes giving the “coral” a good cleaning.

Pete Pehl, a retired U.S. Navy saturation diving officer, is the Aquarium’s Dive Safety Officer who keeps the diving operations running on track. He’s created 18 teams (a daily morning and afternoon team, plus four evening teams; each diver joins a specific team) with each team having anywhere from three to ten members.

The duties vary but, in general, the divers are responsible for food preparation, feeding the animals in various exhibits, giving the “diver talk” presentations from inside the Blue Cavern and Tropical Reef exhibits (by using a specially-wired mask), keeping the exhibits clean, and whatever else needs to be done during a four-hour shift.

From Day 1, divers have been considered to be crucial to the success of the Aquarium. “They’re invaluable to us,” says Perry Hampton, the Director of Husbandry. “We not only get great information about the health of our animals, but the divers have become one of our main attractions. People like to see them in the water and hear the information given during the presentations.”

Divers are classified in three ways. “Exhibit Diver” is how everyone starts and means you help with food prep, animal feeding, and cleaning. “Presentation Diver” requires the completion of some classroom training and qualifies you to give talks from inside the exhibits. “Scientific Diver” can be attained after you’ve been volunteering for a year and allows you to assist with collecting, research, and other areas. Pehl is very keen on this part of the program. “We’re entering an exciting time,” he says, “because our Scientific Divers are going to be an integral part of the Aquarium of the Pacific’s new Research Institute.” It’s envisioned that the Institute may be involved with monitoring projects, biodiversity studies, and original research.

Although many of the volunteer divers are Instructors and Divemasters, the basic requirements are that you be at least 18, certified as a Rescue Diver or above, and have a minimum of 50 logged dives. Interested divers can get an application by calling 562-951-1659 or visit the website at http://www.aquariumofpacific.org.

But what draws divers initially is not only their love of the ocean, but a unique opportunity to interact with marine life on a regular basis and in a way totally unavailable in the wild. A common comment from those who volunteer is that they appreciate the chance to have unique interactions with a variety of sea creatures. “We get to know the fish as individuals,” says Betsy Suttle, a diver for the past four years. “Sometimes, it almost seems like the fish have us trained to do their bidding.”

Although a yearlong commitment is asked for those accepted, the divers feel they get as much out of volunteering as they’re asked to give. It’s a tremendous educational experience as well as just plain fun.

If you’re looking for a new diving challenge, want to increase your knowledge and experience, are interested in sharing your love of the ocean with others, and want to make that Catalina-to-Micronesia trip each week, then volunteering at the Aquarium of the Pacific may be just the ticket for you. It’s a unique experience and also the only place in L.A. where you can legitimately consider a male Napoleon Wrasse to be your best friend.

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