Aquarium Diving: What’s it like?

Preparing for a hookah dive (diving without an air tank) in an aquarium exhibit.

Flying home to Colorado this winter break, I was excited for the snow, the mountains….and scuba diving.

When I learned several years ago that the Denver aquarium has a volunteer diving team, and that with the right qualifications, anyone can join and get experience caring for the animal species and exhibits, I instantly wanted to know, “Where do I sign up?”

“Eels have poor eyesight,” and other lessons learned

My first time entering an aquarium exhibit to feed the fish was somewhat nerve-racking. As I tightly grasped a container of raw seafood in one hand and held long metal tongs in the other, my dive partner gave me a reassuring nod and we descended into the tank. Noticing our presence and the smell of food, fish began to swim our way, and I thought to myself, “This is everything they tell you NOT to do in scuba classes.” Aquarium diving has its fair share of moments where I simultaneously laugh out loud at the absurdity of a conversation or situation, and think to myself, “It is SO cool that I get to do this.”

I’ve learned that moray eels have poor eyesight and sharp teeth (luckily not through experience), and sometimes swim between divers’ arms and legs while being fed. I’ve learned that certain scuba skills, such as regulator recovery, are important when a just-too-large fish swims through the circle of your air hose. I’ve learned an incredible amount about the biology and care of species in an aquarium, and perhaps most importantly, I’ve learned that rock-paper-scissors works just as well when played underwater with aquarium guests.

Aquarium diving: Different than the ocean?

Diving in an aquarium is different than diving in the ocean. While open water dives may sometimes have difficult conditions that an aquarium lacks, such as strong currents or silty water, aquarium diving presents new challenges, such as difficult entries and exits, new gear, confined spaces and a greater concern for water quality and contaminants. When diving in an aquarium, you aren’t simply “diving” – you’re attaching gear and moving equipment underwater, protecting a bucket of food as hungry fish swarm around you and interacting with aquarium visitors.

A typical volunteer shift lasts 3-4 hours, and starts with getting briefed by aquarists on what needs to be done in an exhibit. Daily tasks can include feeding stingrays, sharks or sturgeon, cleaning the inside of a exhibit’s acrylic windows, siphoning the gravel bottom of an exhibit, or scrubbing the rock walls and underwater features. Most of the diving equipment is the same as open water scuba diving, but a few extras, such as tools for cleaning and safety gear (chain mail gloves, metal tongs, and other equipment for feeding) take some getting used to.

An exhibit that I frequently dive in, seen from above.

Sometimes, we “dive hookah” 

Hookah diving is a commonly used technique in aquariums, where space is often much tighter than the open ocean. While diving with a hookah system, you use a long regulator hose that is attached to an air compressor, providing air from the surface instead of diving with an air tank and BCD (buoyancy control device) on your back. A hookah system allows divers to navigate more easily, although like many aspects of aquarium diving, takes some getting used to.

What does it take to become a volunteer?

Each aquarium has its own set of criteria to become a volunteer diver. Most require a certification (in my case, we had to be at least a certified Rescue Diver), a certain number of dives (for us, we needed at least 50 under our belts), a successful swim test (ours required a 400-meter timed swim, 10 minutes of treading water, and an underwater, breath-holding swim) and a successful dive test (mine was very similar to tests administered for scuba certification courses, but with a stronger emphasis on buoyancy control). In addition to the physical tests, most aquariums require volunteer divers have current CPR, first aid and AED certifications, and pass written and practical exams covering the safety procedures specific to the aquarium. During my first month as a volunteer, I also participated in a rescue training course at the aquarium, ensuring that emergency procedures and training were tailored to our specific environment.

For many people, especially those in landlocked states, the local aquarium is the only “ocean” they will ever experience – their only glimpse of the underwater world. When managed in an ethically and biologically sound way, aquariums can be valuable tools for increasing marine education and conservation – a mission I love being a part of.

3 thoughts on “Aquarium Diving: What’s it like?

  1. Wow! What an interesting read on your recent experience with becoming an Aquarium Diver. Your detailed descriptions and photos provided an excellent overview of the necessary steps and observations one makes in getting certified for such an endeavor. Congratulations, Jill!

  2. This sounds like a great hands on experience for aquarists who are looking into getting massive tanks. Even watching a diver clean out the substrate and large rocks would be helpful, as many people fail to realize just how much work it is to keep large aquariums clean.

    On the divers portion this does seem like a dream come true. Being guaranteed to get close to, and feed, rare fish must be quite the experience.

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