Behind the Glass: Aquarium Diving

Have you ever gazed into an aquarium or through the glass panels at the zoo longing to dive with that massive whale shark or exotic fish? Diving opportunities in the zoo and aquarium industry are becoming more available to the public than ever before. Now you, too, can take a giant stride behind the glass and encounter creatures firsthand from the far reaches of the oceans.

A great way to dive in an aquarium regularly is to volunteer. Dive programs frequently need helping hands to assist with maintenance of a healthy ecosystem in exhibit tanks that hold from a few hundred thousand to millions of gallons of water. Volunteer divers may also be asked to accompany staff divers offshore to obtain new animals for research. This exciting task requires excellent buoyancy, practice and a little luck.

The variety of opportunities in which divers can participate is different at each institution. At many places, divers can feed and assist with animal husbandry while enjoying close encounters with animals accustomed to divers. An added bonus is with great lighting, no current and fish that pose—videography and photography prospects abound.

Volunteer divers may also take advantage of continuing education programs and opportunities to try new gear. For example, full-face-mask education shows with the public allow divers to learn how to use underwater communication equipment.

Dive research typically ties into most institution mission statements supporting conservation and education. Field research is one of the more interesting volunteer diving opportunities. The South Carolina Aquarium volunteer divers assist multiple state agencies with dive projects. For example, while working with the South Carolina Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology, divers have explored Civil War wrecks in Charleston Harbor such as the ironclad monitor vessel USS Patapsco and searched for remnants of a lost stone fleet; these memorable dive experiences are hard to match.
Want to get involved?
Divers who want to volunteer at zoos and aquariums need to undergo a diving physical in addition to completing the the general medical evaluation form. Divers are also required to be trained in basic life support including CPR and automated external defibrillator (AED) use plus emergency oxygen administration and neurological assessment. All of these requirements can be met with the DAN Diving First Aid for Professional Divers Course.

Zoo and aquarium diving environments are diverse, but all dive operations typically contain some common elements designed to keep diving safe and work efficient. The individual who administers the dive program, often referred to as dive safety officer (DSO), is challenged to ensure safe diving for staff, volunteers and guests in some unique situations. DSOs must have an intimate knowledge of occupational diving and the experience necessary to evaluate diving tasks to apply appropriate diving protocols. Institutions require a dive safety manual, a well-documented training and evaluation process, and practice of diving accident drills.
Dive Immersion Programs

In addition to volunteer diving programs, many zoos and aquariums have introduced Guest Dive Immersion programs, offering new ways for divers to explore. In 1995 Disney's Living Seas was the first institution in the United States to offer the unique experience of diving in an exhibit by a paid guest. Diving in an aquarium setting with perfectly controlled dive conditions and close encounters with animals divers may not have the opportunity to see as easily in the wild offers guests a uniquely educational experience.

Guest Dive Immersion programs are available at many institutions throughout the world. There are opportunities to dive with whale sharks and manta rays at the Georgia Aquarium and the Florida Aquarium recently relaunched a Dive with the Sharks program. Monterey Bay Aquarium in California has a rare opportunity to introduce children to the water in their outdoor tidal pool area. These programs are also offered at the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, Calif;, Downtown Aquarium in Denver, National Aquarium in Baltimore, Shark Reef Aquarium at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas, and the list continues to grow each year. Look online, or call your nearest zoo or aquarium to learn more about your chance to take a giant stride into the other side of the glass.