Monterey Bay Aquarium Volunteer Dive Team

Monterey Bay Aquarium Volunteer Dive Team

In honor of the holidays, this month’s feature piece is all about giving!

BTG focuses on the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Volunteer Dive Team. Thank you to George Z. Peterson, the Director of Dive Programs for the Monterey Bay Aquarium and Karen Jeffries, the Manager of PR and Communications for the aquarium for their help in creating this piece. All photography is courtesy of the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

This month at the aquarium, on December 15th, they are holding their annual volunteer celebration, MBA Volunteer Diver Appreciation Cioppino Dinner. It’s an evening completely dedicated to thanking and honoring the volunteer divers. When I heard about this, I thought it would be the perfect feature for BTG for December! Volunteers are a huge part of our zoo and aquarium world and it’s important to recognize all of their work. I do hope you enjoy this month’s article and wish everyone a wonderful holiday season!

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Q: When was the Monterey Bay Aquarium Volunteer Dive Team started and why? 

A: The Aquarium Volunteer Dive Team was started before the actual aquarium even opened. Looking back at records, they believe the date of the very first volunteer dive was May 16, 1984. The Monterey Bay Aquarium than opened October 29, 1984.

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Q: How many volunteers were there the first year? How many are involved today?

A: In the very beginning, there were only a handful of volunteer divers.  Today the entire aquarium has around 1,000 volunteers and of those 120 are divers!

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Q:  Since the Monterey Bay Aquarium Volunteer Dive Team was actually in place before the aquarium was, what tasks did they do that first year that was crucial to the aquarium opening? 

A: The initial group of divers played a huge part in preparing for the aquarium to open. Their tasks included collecting animals, prepping food and feeding animals, diving in multiple exhibits to help keep them clean and ready for opening and they also helped to recruit other divers. The volunteers would literally show up and do anything the aquarium needed help with. Knowing that their time was valuable and with the mindset to keep these amazing folks around for a long time the aquarium scheduled many of their volunteer shifts to dive in the evening when it best fit their schedule. To this day, they still schedule most of the volunteer dives in the evening to accommodate them.

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Q:  What all does the Monterey Bay Aquarium Volunteer Dive Team do currently?

A: The volunteer dive teams have a variety of tasks including keeping the exhibits looking pristine. This job is more than just cleaning the acrylic. When it comes to the actual exhibits, these divers are the “first line of defense”. Due to the amount of time that many of them have spent in the exhibits, they are able to routinely make observations of the plants, animals allowing them to keep close tabs on the health of all the inhabitants, the eco-system in general and even the acrylic windows. They say that after so many years of diving it it’s like being in your own backyard garden!

They also help with sub-tidal monitoring and research efforts both inside and outside of the aquarium including working with other institutions, NGO’s and community science groups. The volunteer divers also participate in the aquarium’s special Kelp Forest feeding presentations that happen 364 days a year at 11:30am and again at 4:00pm PST. These fascinating presentations can even be seen on the Aquariums website http://www.montereybayaquarium.org/efc/efc_kelp/kelp_cam.aspx

Other tasks include being involved with various out-reach efforts for the Aquarium and the dive team. Volunteer divers work hand and hand with the aquarium staff when it comes to many public events. They help from setting up events to actually educating and interacting with visitors, and are true aquarium ambassadors.

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Diver in kelp forest exhibit at Monterey Bay Aquarium feeds fish.

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Q: On average, how many hours does a volunteer diver dive for the aquarium on a weekly basis?

A: The divers actually dive on the same team every other week on the same day at the same time. Since these divers are volunteers, the aquarium works around their work schedule. The Aquarium feels very strongly about the value of retention of their volunteers and they desire that they stay connected to the Aquarium’s mission.

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Q:  What inspires/brings people to the aquarium to be a volunteer diver?

A: There are many reasons that people are inspired to volunteer dive but George said he felt the common element in each person is their desire to share what someone once shared with them. They each have such a passion for the ocean they want to share that with others while also contributing to the community.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s mission statement is “To Inspire Conservation of the Oceans”. The volunteer dive team certainly expresses this, as it is made up of people from all walks of life, age and professions. It’s truly amazing to see such a variety of people come together for a common cause due to a common passion.

Scuba is an amazing way to inspire people to accomplish things to they never thought they would be able to do, and the volunteer divers are the perfect vehicle to deliver this message to the almost 2 million visitors they see each year.

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Q: What type of training, certifications and experience does a volunteer diver have to have to be a volunteer diver at the Monterey Bay Aquarium?

A: The aquarium does a full, professional style interview with the person applying to be a volunteer diver. They basically treat the position like a job, making sure you’re a good fit for the position and the position is a good fit for the candidate. There is a requirement to agree to commit to at least a minimum of a year conducting a minimum of 25 dives a year. This also ensures the divers are familiar with procedures of diving there and in the environments they are diving in.

Once a volunteer is selected they need to be certified in Open Water, Advanced Open Water, Rescue as well as CPR/ O2/First Aid/AED.

Volunteer divers than do a swim test and a check out dive. If they meet all of the requirements and successfully pass the water skills, the diver is accepted as a Diver-In-Training and starts occupational dive training and/or scientific dive training. The Aquarium follows Cal OSHA and the American Academy of Underwater Sciences (AAUS) dive standards.

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Q: While diving, what are some of the extraordinary experiences volunteer divers have had? Any interesting encounters with sea life?

A: Divers have interesting encounters with sea life every day! However, their favorite experience is the Monterey Bay Aquarium/Children’s Miracle Network’s Day of Discovery. This day is when the Aquarium takes children with disabilities diving in the Great Tide Pool Exhibit! All the divers truly relish being able to give back to these special children the joy of being a scuba diver. Not only do the children enjoy the day, but the divers also gain: It’s truly inspiring for both sides. The children experience something new and exciting and afterwards know that anything in their life is possible! The divers see children that face extreme difficulties every day and meet life with grace and trust. It truly is an amazing program. (Read more info about Day of Discovery at the end of this article.)

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Q:  What are some of the favorite aspects of diving for the volunteers?

A: Some of the favorite aspects of diving revolve around the team aspect and sense of camaraderie. They love their team! Diving allows them to bond with each other, creating a type of family in a sense. Many of these volunteer divers become lifelong friends.

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Q: The volunteer divers are obviously extremely important to the aquarium. If the aquarium didn’t have great volunteers, how would that affect the aquarium?

A: To put it simply, the aquarium would have to close. The Aquarium was built upon the foundation of volunteerism and this core value is central to the Aquarium’s daily operations. This still holds true today.

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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 who 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 TABs, (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.  This summer dive program for kids ages 8 – 13 began in 2003 and has now served over 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 when he first saw the kids in action, but focused on coming back to the Monterey Bay Aquarium to dive in our Great Tide Pool. 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 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 2013 there were three Days of Discovery, 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.org.