Working Under Pressure: Aquarium Dive Safety Officer

Overseeing safety while ensuring fun and education.

They have the opportunity to dive year round, regardless of weather conditions, and animal interaction, including large apex predators, is a veritable guarantee. This is the life of a dive safety officer (DSO) at a public aquarium.

As aquariums continue to increase in size and popularity, dive operations are increasing exponentially to monitor animal health, conduct public educational programming as well as maintain underwater exhibits. DSOs are the in-house supervisory authorities who plan, develop and administer both the aquarium scientific and volunteer staff diving programs dedicated to enhancing the guest experience. DSOs strive to provide environmental education experiences to the thousands of guests that visit their facility each year. They also manage any snorkel or dive adventures, which allow guests to witness first-hand the wonders of the aquatic world.

In addition to overseeing the programmatic functions of the aquarium, the DSO is committed to maintaining his team's dive safety and training, overseeing life support equipment maintenance and administrative record keeping. The North Carolina Aquarium at Roanoke Island's (NCARI) team is comprised of 55 staff and volunteer divers who perform over 3,500 individual splashes yearly, both offshore and in-house within exhibits ranging from 800 to 285,000 gallons. The team's efforts directly support aquarium husbandry, animal collection and diver training, as well as educational and scientific research objectives. Scientific and volunteer staff diving is performed primarily utilizing open circuit SCUBA systems, although several staff divers are also qualified on closed-circuit rebreathers.

"Aquariums provide a unique public experience displaying native aquatic animals for environmental education, family entertainment and research benefit to the local community," said Pat Murphy, NCARI's DSO. At NCARI, the centerpiece Graveyard of the Atlantic exhibit has schooling fishes and several eight-foot sharks swimming around a 50-foot replica of the famous ironclad USS Monitor, which sank in 230 feet of water off Cape Hatteras in 1862. This elaborate exhibit is designed to promote awareness and conservation of the diverse natural and cultural habitat resources associated with the region's aquatic environments.

A DSO is dedicated to ensuring the safety of his team as well as the enjoyment of the aquarium's guests. Qualifications for becoming an aquarium dive safety officer vary between organizations. Typically, a DSO must have a degree from a from an accredited four-year college and be certified as an open water instructor from a recognized national dive training organization. Many DSOs have previous experience as aquarium divers. If the aquarium is an organizational member of the American Academy of Underwater Sciences (AAUS), completion of the AAUS DSO qualification program is an additional requisite.

"Volunteering or completing an extensive internship at a local aquarium are excellent opportunities to gain the needed animal husbandry and exhibit dive experience necessary to become an aquarium DSO," Murphy said. "As a DSO, the most rewarding part of the job is the daily interaction and training of these volunteer divers. Not only are these divers honing their personal diving skills, which will make them safer divers, but they are also selflessly contributing their time and efforts to educate the public on the need to preserve and safeguard North Carolina's fragile marine environment for future generations."

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