Standing on the dive platform above the clear, warm water of the Giant Ocean Tank (GOT), creatures of all shapes and sizes circling below me, one question I'm often asked by the visitors surrounding the top of the exhibit is, "How do you get to dive in that tank?" Indeed, it's a question I myself once asked when I was visiting the aquarium as a kid, some twenty-odd years ago.
Though there are a variety of ways certified SCUBA divers can experience the GOT as a guest diver, such as through the New England Aquarium Dive Club, raffles or auctions offered through charitable organizations, or even participating in annual NEAq collecting expeditions into the Bahamas, the majority of divers seen swimming alongside the six hundred plus inhabitants of the GOT are NEAq Scientific Divers. These divers, both Aquarium staff and volunteers, perform a wide variety of tasks critical to the success of such a large and complicated exhibit. They also undertake a wide variety of diving activities for the Aquarium in both local waters and at points scattered all across the globe.
The first step in becoming a Scientific Diver for the New England Aquarium is a wet one--it's the dreaded, and so very exciting, checkout dive. A prerequisite for Scientific Diver candidates is to be SCUBA certified, and one of my jobs as the Aquarium's Diving Safety Officer is to ensure that these candidates are adequately comfortable and competent underwater.
What better way to test this then to bring them into the GOT and have them perform all the basic SCUBA skills they learned in their Open Water certification class--but with a twist.
This time they have to do these skills while 300lb sand tiger sharks circle overhead, loggerhead turtles creep up behind them, and literally hundreds of spectators watch their every move only inches away.
Not many divers get the unique experience of buddy breathing while a young child drinks in every detail, wide-eyed in wonder.
Wide-eyed, that's the expression I see in basically every candidate splashing into the tank for the first time, as they experience a sense of sensory overload. And I'm proud of every one of them as I watch that expression morph into one of elation as I shake their hand at the completion of the skills review.
They have to get past me, and the GOT, before they can start their education as a Scientific Diver for the Aquarium, but with that first contact I know that NEAq has gained another valuable diver.