#13: Dive Buddies - A Day in the Life of A Dive Volunteer (Don)

Today started out as every day--arrive at 8 a.m. and start food prep. First feeding is at 10 a.m. and it's the biggest feed, so lots to do. Shark food to prep, turtle food to prep, fish to chop, shrimp to clean. In total about 30 pounds of food to get ready for the day's feedings in the Giant Ocean Tank.

Ten a.m. dive and I am on the dive platform helping the staff divers get ready to do the first feed of the day. I am also getting ready to feed the barracudas, the needlefish, porcupinefish and, yes, of course, Myrtle the green sea turtle.

All the feeding I do is from one of two platforms over the top of the Giant Ocean Tank. The first platform is the one from which the divers enter and exit the tank. From this platform, barracudas, needlefish and porcupinefish are my feeding responsibility. Both barracudas look hungry this morning, and since they are one of the apex predators in the tank, I want to make sure they get fed right away.

This, of course, upsets the self-proclaimed queen of the tank, Myrtle, the Green Sea Turtle who circles impatiently awaiting her first food of the day. Feeding the barracudas is one of my favorite activities of the day. You get their attention by slapping the surface of the water. I guess it makes them think there is an injured fish nearby. Both have very different feeding personalities.

The little barracuda stops and remains motionless in the center of the tank at the surface awaiting a capelin tossed a foot or so in front of her face. As soon as the fish hits the water, she (or he, not sure what sex either of them are!) darts forward quickly grabbing the fish just as barracuda do in the wild. But the big barracuda is lazy. He (or she) hears the slapping on the water's surface and swims directly toward the dive platform. But if the capelin isn't placed right in front of his face, and only a few inches in front for that matter, he will swim right by the fish. The first attempt is about two inches above his mouth and not on target, so he swims right by and the capelin glides right over the top of his head. A permit swims by and grabs the wayward fish. I guess the permit isn't as fussy about where he gets his or her food!

Second attempt to feed the big barracuda is on target. I hold the capelin about six inches below the surface of the water and release it just before the big barracuda gets to it. Chomp! Down it goes. About 10 capelin later both barracuda are full and no longer circling the dive platform. Finally, it's Myrtle the Green Sea Turtle's turn to get fed and boy is she not happy that I have been so slow to pay attention to her.

I leave the dive platform and head over to the smaller platform that is used exclusively for feeding Her Majesty, the Queen of the GOT. A pound of Brussels sprouts, broccoli and cabbage, a third of a pound of fish and squid and a third of a pound of Myrtle's special gelatin mixture are gone in no time and she still could eat more, but that will have to wait for the next feeding dive at 11:15 am.

All the while as I am feeding, I am answering questions from visitors to the Aquarium. There's the usual questions: Why don't the sharks eat the other fish? (They're too full from all the food we offer them.) Aren't the divers afraid of the sharks? (No, Sand Tiger Sharks look ferocious, but are fairly docile animals and our three Sand Tiger Sharks are accustomed to having the divers around.) How old is Myrtle? (About 70-75 years old.) How much does Myrtle weigh? (about 540 lbs last time we weighed her.) It is a busy day for school groups. At one point I have twenty 9- or 10-year-olds firing questions at me three at a time and barely giving me a chance to answer any of them. But I love it. The kids (and most of the adults) are great to interact with and if I can answer their questions, get them interested in the marine world and maybe just stimulate some thoughts of pursuing a career that will help save the marine environment, then my 12 years here as a volunteer will be a great success.

The best part of my day today (and most Fridays) is the 1:15 dive. This is my chance to get into the GOT. No feeding, but various maintenance tasks to perform. Today it is scrubbing algae off the artifical coral. It may sound like a tedious task, but it's not. There is something satisfying about seeing a section of the artificial reef encrusted with a thick growth of red algae at the start of the dive and then, after creating a billowing cloud of red and watching the angelfish swoop in for a bite of the newly released algae chunks, looking at that same brightly colored yellow and purple and maroon and white reef section at the end. Who knew that there were colors on this artificial reef other than red!

Also, during reef scrubbing, I am not far from the windows and waving to the kids, making faces at them and generally acting goofy to make them smile is all part of the job. And that part makes it fun.

A simple wave to a three year old brings a big smile to their face, while a wave to another toddler evokes a trembling lower lip followed by a wail and grasp for their parents. They didn't realize their was something in the tank that could see them! That always makes me laugh and flood my mask (and usually makes the parents laugh as well).

Near the end of the dive I head into the big sand tray--a large open area at the bottom of the tank. In this area one of the four pipes that shoot clean water into the Giant Ocean Tank is located, concealed in a fake sponge on the bottom. I call this cleaning station time. I pile up a bunch of the gravel from the bottom of the tank and hold handfuls of the gravel in front of the effluent pipe and it blows out into the water column. This always attracts a large crowd of various fish. Today, one of the large hogfish comes down, mouth wide open to allow the gravel to blow across its body and through its gills. The bar jacks descend to join the crowd, as do a number of angelfish and tangs. They all position themselves to let the blowing gravel sweep across their bodies. I think it is kind of like a back scratch for them!

The rest of the day is spent mostly on the dive platform doing surface feedings of the needlefish and answering the questions of the visitors. Hundreds of questions a day. Many the same, but all asked with the same curiousity. And all answered with the same enthusiasm. Yes, it does sometimes get tiring answering the same question for the 100th time in a day, but I wouldn't trade this job for anything. Come on in and see me some Friday. I'll tell you why the sharks don't eat the other fish.




  1. Sounds like fun, how do you become a dive volunteer in the GOT? What kind of experience do you need?

  2. Well, you might check out the volunteer section of the Aquarium website (www.neaq.org). This lists all the available positions including divers. Keep in mind that there are requirements as far as number of logged dives, deep dives and night dives needed to qualify. A six month committment of volunteering before you can dive is required doing the tasks that Don mentioned in his blog. Then if a position is available, and you have the necessary requirements, you'll be doing a checkout dive with John, the DSO (Diving Safety Officer) to do your skills check. If all goes well, you'll be able to jump in for the 1:15 pm cleaning dive with the other dive volunteers. There's nothing else like it!

  3. The picture of myrtle is great! Can I buy a print of her for my house?

  4. I think I would be interested in becoming a volunteer diver. How do I go about applying?

  5. That picture of myrtle is awesome. I'd love a poster of it but can't find it in your online store anywhere. Is it available for purchase?


Comments left in this section do not represent the views of the New England Aquarium. Due to the large volume of questions received, staff cannot respond to individual comments but will consider them when planning future blog posts.