My First Day With the NY Aquarium Dive Team
Written by Meredith Massey Wednesday, 26 January 2011 21:44
As some of you know, I’ve been interested in joining the NY Aquarium Dive Team since I was first aware of its existence. I’ve been volunteering as a docent at the Central Park Zoo for thre years (like the aquarium, the CPZ is part of the Wildlife Conservation Society, which oversees NYC’s 5 zoos), and I got certified in scuba diving a little over a year ago. The Aquarium Dive Team just seemed like a perfect union of my two favorite hobbies. Holding me back for awhile was the fact that I live so far away from the aquarium, which is located in Coney Island, and the fact that I don’t drive (it’s a phobia). I’m still working on that, but I decided it was time to stop using that as an excuse and just go for it.
My first day with the dive team started very early. I was out of the house by 5:45 AM to take the subway to Coney Island. I got to the aquarium just in time -- 7:30. I had a big bag of stuff with me, including 20 pounds of lead shot purchased the day before, as the aquarium supplies wetsuits and tanks but not weights. Thank goodness for my wheeled duffle bag.
I met the volunteer coordinator, Dick Blankfein, filled out many forms, and then met the Sunday A dive team. There wasn’t much time for socializing but they seemed nice. I have a mentor named Jesse. She’s been with the dive team for 3 years and I’m told she’s very knowledgeable about the animals. She was very helpful showing me the ropes.
After suiting up -- no easy task, as you know putting on a 7ml wetsuit is a workout by itself, and then I had to put on a 20-lb weight belt, and THEN 10 more pounds in my BC (at the aquarium you need a lot of weight) -- we went to get our tanks. I then had to carry all my stuff, including 30-lb cylinder, to the back of the sea cliffs exhibit. Oof.
Entering the penguin exhibit was a high point for me though. Not only were they letting me go inside, they were letting me dive it! First order of business was a dive test. It had a lot of the same basic requirements that certification has -- remove and replace mask, remove and replace belt, remove and replace BC. I was nervous since I haven’t had to do a lot of those things in over a year. The water was cold, but not unbearable (56°F, I think they said). I got through the swimaround buoyancy check okay, but when it came time to remove my mask, I had a hard time clearing it and Dick had to help me. It was embarrassing since clearing my mask is something I do all the time while diving (though true, I don’t usually take it all the way off). I think part of the problem was that my hood was getting in the way of the face seal. Eventually I got it though. Then it was time to take off my weight belt. That was not easy either, but with help I got that back on too. We figured out later that the buckle was on the wrong way and that was why I had had trouble -- a good thing to find out in a controlled environment and not an open water dive. So, despite some foibles, I passed, and was officially accepted as a member of the dive team.
I would be remiss, of course, to not mention the wonderful animals that are in this exhibit. The first thing I saw was a huge sturgeon, and then a cluster of Drum, another huge, fat fish. They were about 4 feet long. There was also a school of smaller silver fish, I didn’t find out what kind. And of course there were penguins; black-footed penguins, about a foot high. They pretty much stayed away from us. I couldn’t stop thinking, “I’m swimming with penguins!” How many divers can say that? But really the big Drum were my favorite.
Then it was time to get to work -- after all, that is what the dive team is all about! I was shown how to scrape and scrub the inside of the viewing windows. Not the most satisfying task, as I couldn’t really see dirt on the windows, at least the scraper didn’t seem to make much of a difference. We hold on to these little suction cups and then scrape, up and down. Then wipe with the scrubby towel, in a circle like Daniel-san. (Paint the fence, sand the floor -- dive team is a secret karate training camp!) I followed Jesse around and tried to follow her instructions. Next we got scrub brushes and got to work on the rocks in the exhibit. The tank is filled with algae and other mucky things that come in directly from the ocean. The algae on the rocks is red, purple, and green. The red stuff was very satisfying to scrub because it was on thick and I could see how much better the rocks looked afterwards. Jesse told me to ditch all the air in my BC, make myself as negatively buoyant as possible, wedge myself in with my feet and scrub those rocks as hard as I could. And I did. And it was hard work! But it kept me from getting cold despite being in the water for one hour and sixteen minutes (incidentally, the divers often go two or more hours cleaning a tank).
The hardest part of scuba diving for me is all the setup and breakdown of the equipment involved. Usually the actual diving is quite relaxing. But in this case, it’s work followed by work and then more work. My day at theaquarium ended at about 12:30. I was sore and tired, but I felt like I had accomplished something. I do hope to eventually get to know the team a bit better (that’s one thing about diving -- no chit-chat underwater), but the short day was also appreciated. In the summer we’ll be walking around as regular docents, interacting with the public after we’re done cleaning. I look forward to that, and learning about the different animals at the aquarium.
If you are interested in checking out this opportunity, you must attend a weekend information session with the volunteer coordinator. The dive team does require a commitment of two days a month, a regular shift once every two weeks. I understand that’s a big time commitment for a lot of people, but it’s important since the divers at the aquarium are seen more as unpaid staff than volunteers. They have much more behind-the-scenes access than other WCS volunteers. There are also other perks, like low-priced DAN oxygen administration and first aid classes. The Aquarium Dive Team is a year-round chance to perfect your buoyancy and get comfortable with your equipment. And best of all, you’re helping to make New York City’s only aquarium a nicer place.
To learn more about the NY Aquarium Dive Team:
About Meredith Massey:
Meredith first tried to become a scuba diver in college and was discouraged when she couldn't equalize on her first pool dive. After some encouragement from a coworker in summer 2009, she tried again and received her open water certification. Meredith has since logged about 60 dives at destinations including the Great Barrier Reef, Hawaii, and Bonaire, as well as in the waters around her hometown New York City. Meredith works as a copy editor in pharmaceutical advertising.
Meredith is also a member of Oceanblue Divers! View her profile here.