Monterey Bay Aquarium Dive Team

Monterey Bay Aquarium Dive Team

monterey-logo-smallThis month’s feature comes to us from the Monterey Bay Aquarium Dive Team! It’s a FABULOUS article so get ready for some great info and images. Thank you to George Peterson, the Senior Dive Safety Officer/Dive Program Manager, for taking the time out of his busy schedule to answer these questions. Also thank you to Ken Peterson, the Monterey Bay Aquarium Communications Director for helping as well!  It was both a pleasure and honor working with both of them. Thank you!

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Q: The dive team at the Monterey Bay Aquarium is extremely important to the aquarium itself, the community and the local marine life. How many people are on staff? How many volunteers are also involved?

A: Here at the Monterey Bay Aquarium we usually have between 135-150 divers in our program at any given time. Approximately 50 of these folks are staff divers and 100 are volunteer divers. The Dive Operations Department manages all aspects of the Aquarium dive program and has 4 full-time employees and one part-time employee.

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Q:  How long has the Monterey Bay Aquarium had a dive team and a dive program?

A: The Aquarium has conducted diving activities since 1983, a year before we opened.

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Q:  When it comes to exhibit maintenance, what are some of the tasks involved?

A: Keeping our exhibits clean and the habitats looking pristine mean that we have divers in the exhibits 364 days a year! This involves a variety of tasks including observing, feeding and sometimes moving fish and invertebrates, aqua-scaping, siphoning the rocks and sand, and cleaning windows. Because ours is an “open” seawater system – meaning we take in seawater for our exhibits directly from Monterey Bay – an abundance of larvae and spores come in with the water. This is great for making the exhibits more of a living extension of the bay, and it requires more maintenance (especially window cleaning!) to keep the windows and rockwork from being overgrown by the new arrivals.

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Q:  What type of tools and supplies do you use while cleaning and doing exhibit maintenance?

A: We use a variety of tools and techniques to accomplish our tasks. Sometimes we’ll shoot video or take pictures to observe an animal’s behavior, look for parasites that are regularly found on fish or to estimate size and weight. Moving a critter to release it back into the ocean is not always an easy task. Depending on the specific animal, its size and its behavior, we’ll employ different size nets, tarps, etc to help accomplish this. To clean the exhibits and the acrylic windows we’ll use a hand-held siphon (i.e. underwater vacuum) or pressure washer, mesh rags that won’t scratch the soft acrylic surfaces, suction cups to help divers stay in position on the windows while they work, and lots of good old fashioned elbow grease.

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Q: Some people may assume that dive teams at aquariums are only there to clean the tanks. However, they do so much more! Could you explain the vast role the Monterey Bay Aquarium dive team plays in the variety of programs offered?

A: Here at the Monterey Bay Aquarium we usually conduct about 4,000 dives a year, with 2,700 of these being in the exhibits and 1,300 of them in the ocean. We can be part of research projects located around the globe but typically conduct the majority of our ocean dives on the beautiful California coast, Hawaii, Mexico and occasionally the Pacific Northwest and Canada. These dives consist of collecting animals (under strict scientific, state and federal regulations), conducting research on behaviors, feeding and reproductive strategies, as well as collecting data for population estimates.  One of the most interesting of our field projects involves Project White Shark, through which we’ve learned a tremendous amount about the lives of young great white sharks and have on six occasions brought a young white shark to Monterey for exhibit before returning it to the wild. The dive team plays an important role in this program: helping deploy an ocean holding pen where the shark is kept before it comes to Monterey; monitoring the shark’s well-being in the pen, and assisting in the process of getting the shark from pen to boat to a land transport vehicle.

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Q: Aquarium visitors get to see the divers in the tank, but there is a whole world above the tanks. What is that area like?

A: The space above the exhibits is typically as Spartan and industrial as the public space is elegant and engaging.  There is almost always water on the floor as we use tools that are in and out of our exhibits all the time so there are drains in every floor space and sealed painted floors.

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Q: The dive team has daily feeding presentations. In what areas of the aquarium are those done? What species are fed? What type of food and how much food does the team go through in a week?

A: We conduct feeding presentations in our signature Kelp Forest exhibit for the public every day of the year (except for Christmas) at 11:30am PT and again at 4:00pm PT. Our fantastic team of food room technicians prepares a suite of sustainably caught seafood items, usually about 4-6lbs per day, depending on the water temperature and dietary needs of specific animals. We feed the majority of the 400+ inhabitants of this amazing exhibit during these dives but if you want to know which ones specifically I invite you to tune into our Kelp Cam to find out for yourself! http://www.montereybayaquarium.org/efc/efc_kelp/kelp_cam.aspx. Our divers also feed the sharks in our Monterey Bay Habitats exhibit, though this is not a scheduled feeding program. We do send text message alerts to visitors who sign up when they arrive, alerting them to this and other UFOs (Unscheduled Feeding Opportunities)!

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Q: The Underwater Explorers program is offered in the summer for kids 8-13. What type of experiences do kids engage in? What is the key thing you’d like the children to learn from the program?

A: In this unique program, kids ages 8-13 are introduced to the underwater world through surface scuba diving. Kids are safely guided by Aquarium leadership-level dive staff in our Great Tide Pool, where they’ll meet amazing animals while getting a fish’s-eye view of the wonders of the bay. No experience is necessary, only a sense of adventure! Our staff guide and assist the participants while introducing them to the animals that call the Great Tide Pool home. All equipment is provided including a dry suit, regulator, fins, air cylinder and mask. The small group size (one staff member for every three students, and no more than 12 participants per session) ensures a safe and educational experience for everyone. The 90-minute program includes a dive briefing, an introduction to basic scuba diving practices, and a tour of the Great Tide Pool and an interpretation of the animals they’ll encounter. Each child takes home a dive log with their photo to commemorate the day. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience that no kid should miss! Here’s a link to more about Underwater Explorers, http://www.montereybayaquarium.org/efc/efc_programs/underwater_explorers.aspx?c=ln.

The main message we hope to impart is that no matter where you live we all depend on the ocean for the air that we breathe and – for many of us – the food that we eat. If we can get kids up close and personal with the critters, we’ve found this fosters a sense of wonderment, discovery and excitement leading them ultimately to take action to protect what they love.

 

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Q:  The Days of Discovery program is a brilliant idea! Could you explain what that program does? What is your favorite aspect of the program?

A: My favorite part of the program is seeing empty wheelchairs on the dive deck and the smiles on the faces of the participants, parents and dive leaders! (history of Day of Discovery is attached to email).

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Q: How long has the Underwater Explorers program and the Days of Discovery program been running? What inspired both to be created?

A: See the Day of Discovery history document at very bottom of this article. Day of Discovery started in 2002 and Underwater Explorers started in 2003 as a result of the success of our first Day of Discovery.

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Q: Your job is obviously not the typical desk job. It includes many aspects. Tell us about some of those aspects, what a typical week is like in the life of an aquarium diver.

A: My title is Senior Dive Safety Officer/Dive Program Manager and I never have a typical work week! One day I might be feeding sharks underwater, the next day giving a presentation on one of the many amazing dive programs we have here at the Aquarium and the following day doing paperwork (yes even a cool job like mine involves paperwork).

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Q: Dive safety is a huge component and highly maintained. What type of safety procedures are done, checked and practiced?

A: We are an Organizational Member of the American Academy of Underwater Sciences (www.aaus.org) and as such follow consensual standards for scientific diving, Cal OSHA standards for working dives http://www.dir.ca.gov/title8/sb7g26a152.html  and recreational dive standards for our public participant programs. We constantly train and re-train our divers on dive safety and dive rescue techniques, certify our divers in diving first aid, CPR, Oxygen Administration, AED use and advanced first aid techniques.

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Q: Here at Ocean4, we love sharks! The aquarium has diving with great white sharks as part of your exhibit program. Most people would be terrified to do this. What is this experience like?

A: Here at the Monterey Bay Aquarium we also love sharks! Not only do we dive with juvenile white sharks on exhibit but also in the field in our 5 million gallon open ocean net pen. Every time I get the chance to dive with a white shark I am struck by a sense of wonderment coupled with a very healthy dose of respect. Sharks are quite often portrayed in a negative and not entirely accurate light, but they are most certainly a wild animal and should be treated as such. When we dive with white sharks on exhibit we wear chain mail suites that offer passive protection for our divers.

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Q: Due to shark populations dropping and their conservation being a major priority, what type of information / education is in the program? What is the one thing you’d like people to learn about great whites?

A: The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Project White Shark, started in 2002, is helping to research and exhibit great white sharks caught off the California coast. This project promotes study, awareness and conservation of these magnificent animals. We focus our efforts and hope to better understand the life history of these threatened and fascinating ocean predators, both adults and juveniles. And we want to inform the public about the steps we are taking to tag and exhibit white sharks. The one thing I personally would like to impart upon people regarding white sharks is that they are not the mindless eating machines they are made out to be but a very important part of an ecosystem that is facing fishing pressures and ocean acidification issues. In order for the whole system to work each aspect must be in balance. You can click here to learn more about the Aquarium’s research and conservation efforts regarding white sharks, http://www.montereybayaquarium.org/cr/whiteshark.aspx.

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Q: What is the most important thing or things you’d like aquarium visitors to know about the dive team?

A: That we are just one part of an amazing team of 1400 staff and volunteers that make the Monterey Bay Aquarium what it is today. Come visit us!

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Q: What personally inspired you to become a diver?

A: I grew up in Iowa and spent the majority of my summers boating, swimming and snorkeling. I always wanted to be a diver and after learning that approximately 71% of the Earth’s surface is covered by the oceans and over 1.5 million different kinds of living organisms exist on Earth and the vast majority of these am in an aquatic environment I knew what I needed to do: get certified to scuba dive! Of course watching old episodes of Sea Hunt didn’t hurt either.

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Q: What is your favorite part of your job? What is your favorite part of the Monterey Bay Aquarium?

A: This is the toughest question that you’ve asked me! I would have to say that the favorite part of my job is getting to work with the amazing volunteers that make our aquarium and our community the special place that it is. My absolute favorite part of the Monterey Bay Aquarium is the Great Tide Pool during a Day of Discovery.

 

Monterey Bay Aquarium Day of Discovery

 

The ocean is the soup of life. It provides us with oxygen, the very essence of life. It controls not only our weather but our very future on this planet. It also has the power to free people from the confines of wheelchairs and gravity. On a July day in 2002, children usually bound to wheelchairs were able to connect with the ocean in a whole new way.

In a joint project between NIADD (National Instructors Association of Divers with Disabilities), Oceanic and the Monterey Bay Aquarium Dive Office, 20 kids were helped into wetsuits and scuba gear, complete with a tank and regulator. Each child was breathing through their regulator, face in the water, exploring the ocean for animals and – most importantly – being a kid without a disability for more than 30 minutes in our Great Tide Pool. That day these most-special kids were equals with everyone else who was in the water and most certainly shared with their dive buddies a newfound appreciation for the wonders of the sea. They simply had a fantastic time during this first “Day of Discovery for Kids with Exceptional Challenges.”

The excitement was not limited to the participants alone. All the volunteer divers who helped, the staff that gave up a Sunday morning at home to serve hot chocolate, and even the media that came out to cover the story became wrapped up in the excitement. As each child came out of the water smiling and full of stories, the tears started flowing all around. Everyone in attendance knew that they wanted to be there the next time we offered the program.

The kids wanted something else that July day. They wanted us, the “able bodies” or TAB’s, (Temporarily Able Bodies) to know them better. They wanted us to know that they can do things, lots of things, so don’t count them out. That message was received loud and clear and they definitely opened some minds that day.

That first Day of Discovery for Kids with Exceptional Challenges has evolved into the Underwater Explorers (UE) program here at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. The Aquarium purchased state-of-the-art equipment to outfit children (abled and disabled) for a surface scuba experience in the sometimes 50-degree water of our Great Tide Pool (GTP).  This summer dive program for kids ages 8 – 13 began in 2003 and has now served almost 30,000 children, including many hundreds with disabilities.

In 2004, a courageous young boy by the name of Zach Bunnell joined us for a dive. Zach had an amazing day and touched many lives. He was too young for the program a year earlier after he first saw the kids in action, but focused on coming back to the Monterey Bay Aquarium to dive in our GTP. In the intervening year, he was blinded by a brain tumor; but that didn’t stop him from showing us all how to live life to the fullest. He died only a few months after fulfilling his dream.

After Zach’s passing it was evident that this special experience for kids with disabilities would, in his honor, become The Zach Bunnell Day of Discovery for Kids with Exceptional Challenges.  The magical day is in honor of 10-year-old Zach Bunnell, who fulfilled his wish to participate in Underwater Explorers, overcoming every obstacle cancer put in his way. Zach’s gentle and witty spirit is remembered by Aquarium staff and volunteers each time we welcome the young people into the program.

Over the years, our circle of supporters and sponsors has widened. In 2005 we were able to offer Zach’s Day and a second Day of Discovery (DoD) during the summer. This allowed even more children the opportunity to participate. We’re fortunate to have the strong support of many volunteer divers and aquarium staff. It’s our special good fortune that volunteer divers Steve Lyon and Marv Tuttle have been so generous with their time and talents. These two men are themselves paraplegics, and helped us to better understand the needs – and potential – of the children we serve. They also undertook much of the recruiting to get the word out about the program. They and the dive staff are tireless in their fundraising efforts, too, so we can make these programs accessible financially for participants and families.

Since 2002, we have made much progress. We offer Zach’s Day and three other Days of Discovery every summer. In 2012 there were four DoD’s serving approximately 100 children. The Day of Discovery program has come to embody the spirit of inspiring conservation of the oceans through volunteerism, which is a foundation of how the Monterey Bay Aquarium operates. With the support of the entire Aquarium community, this program continues to offer a unique opportunity for this most deserving – and too-often underserved – audience.

To learn more about Underwater Explorers and our Day of Discovery visit www.montereybayaquarium.com