BY TONY CARO I’m the rookie on Dive Team 13. I was hired as a volunteer diver at the Adventure Aquarium in Camden in July of 2018, while our most veteran member of the team has been diving here for over 22 years. I started SCUBA diving early last year when I took an introductory class at Temple University. It was there that I met some other divers who told me Adventure Aquarium was looking for volunteer divers. SCUBA diving had never been a passion of mine, but the opportunity seemed too good not to jump at. Our main job as divers is to perform the dive show in the Ocean Realm exhibit. While underwater, one of us speaks to the audience using a special face mask that’s hooked up to a microphone. We teach them about our diving equipment and the hand signals that we use to communicate with each other while we’re underwater.
During the Q & A portion of the show, the most common question we get asked is if we’re afraid to be diving in the same tank as the sharks. We always tell the audience ‘no,’ because the sharks we swim with are well-fed and docile from living in captivity, but every time Waldo the great hammerhead shark swims straight at me, I nearly soil myself. My boss tells me that Waldo doesn’t mean to swim straight at us, but he does because hammerheads have a blind spot directly in front of them due to the unique structure of their head, and that if he wanted to eat me, he wouldn’t swerve around me at the last moment. I still don’t trust him.
He’s called Waldo because when they first put him into the Ocean Realm exhibit, no members of the aquarium staff were able to find him. The divers sifted through the sand and poked behind the rocks with no luck. The biologists continued to put in food for him to eat, but months started to pass, and many people started to assume that he had died, and that his body had been eaten by one of the adult sharks. However, one day someone spotted him swimming through the water, much bigger than before. He was just a baby when he came to the aquarium, and although he is eight feet long now, he’s just hitting puberty, and he’s expected to grow to be around 20 feet long.
However, when Waldo swims by these days, the kids shoo him away, because he’s only getting in between them and a chance to get some face time with Scuba Santa. It’s Christmas season at Adventure Aquarium, so until Christmas day our traditional dive show has been replaced with a tree decorating ceremony and a special appearance by Scuba Santa and his elf helpers. At the end of the show, the kids chant, “I believe in Scuba Santa. I believe in Scuba Santa,” and once they believe hard enough, we arrive on the scene. As a slimmer member of Dive Team 13, I play the part of one of the elves, and just like Waldo, the kids shrug me off, as I’m only another obstacle in their way of getting to their beloved Scuba Santa.
When I first started diving at the aquarium, I confided in my dive team that I was afraid to be diving with the sharks and they laughed. “It’s not the sharks that you need to worry about. It’s Bob,” they told me. Bob is a 300 pound female loggerhead sea turtle in the Ocean Realm exhibit, and she acts just like a dog. Ever curious, she loves to follow the divers around and chew on our equipment. If you ever stay in one place for too long, Bob will show up to chew on your fins, your tank, and even you. Although a bite from a sea turtle won’t cause any serious damage, it will still hurt, although I don’t think she means to cause anyone harm. As a part of a test run for an upcoming fall show, our dive team carved pumpkins underwater. The sea turtles chased us around for the pumpkins, like an untrained dog begging for table scraps. We kept them at bay with special “T” shaped poles, and when that wasn’t enough we had to spin them around and push them away ourselves. When Bob did manage to snag one of the pumpkins, I had to carefully take it away from her. Crestfallen, she laid on the bottom of the tank, her head sunken down like Eeyore.
However, all the divers agree that the real animals to fear in the exhibit are the 200 pound groupers. Groupers grow to be 500 pounds by adulthood and are territorial by nature. When they feel threatened, they turn to their side to show you how large they are. If the diver doesn’t see this display and retreat in time, then the grouper attacks. In 2011, at the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta, a grouper attacked one of the divers, latching its mouth around the diver’s head and shoulders. Luckily, the bite didn’t break the skin. The diver’s wetsuit and tank took most of the damage for him. But the diver was still left in pain, as his chest and shoulders were red, welted, and stinging. Groupers feed on prey by swallowing them whole.
Although there is risk involved in diving with the animals at the aquarium, I don’t believe that any divers are in real danger. Incidents do happen, but they are infrequent and usually the result of avoidable mistakes. Sharks have swam in Earth’s oceans for over 400 million years, while humans have SCUBA dived for less than 100. Sharks don’t know what SCUBA divers are, so they try to stay away from them. It’s only when a shark mistakes a person for another animal, like a seal, that they attack. Peter Benchley, the author of Jaws, once told the Boston Globe, “What I now know, which wasn’t known when I wrote Jaws, is that there is no such thing as a rogue shark which develops a taste for human flesh. No one appreciates how vulnerable they are to destruction.” Although Jaws commercial success made Benchley into a millionaire, he ultimately regretted writing it, because he believes that people are actually a far bigger threat to sharks than they are to people. Sharks have been around for over 400 million years, surviving the mass extinction event that killed off the dinosaurs. They are essential to marine ecosystems like coral reefs, because they keep the populations of other predatory fish low, like groupers. As shark numbers decrease, groupers take their place in the ecosystem, and feed on far more fish than sharks would, leaving an environment where mainly algae can thrive, instead of diverse ecosystems like coral reefs. Practices like shark finning to make shark fin soup leaves many species of sharks suffering, dwindling in numbers when they need to be protected in order for diverse ecosystems like coral reefs to thrive.
Since the release of Blackfish, more people have become concerned with the happiness and rights of animals kept in captivity. When Inky the octopus escaped from the National Aquarium of New Zealand in 2016 (by squeezing through a crack in the top of his tank, and then into a drain pipe leading into the Pacific), he was praised for escaping “aquarium jail.” Octopuses are the most intelligent invertebrate and one of the most intelligent animals on Earth, and they are thought to be too smart to be kept in captivity. Their caretakers often cite them needing lots of stimuli to keep from getting bored in their tank. However, Inky was added as a member to the National Aquarium of New Zealand in 2014 after he was caught in a crayfish pot and badly injured. The aquarium took Inky in, and helped him recover from his wounds. Surely not all animals that aquariums acquire come into their care under such good circumstances, but aquariums care about their animals, and are more than just “jails.”
The job may seem glamorous, but when we’re not putting on the show,we’re scrubbing the gunk off the rocks in the 760,000 gallon tank. Most of the fish waste and dead skin cells gets filtered out of the water, but with time enough of it manages to collect on the rocks to form a pasty brown film. As the gunk gets scrubbed off and begins to float away, fish come over to eat it in droves. Occasionally one of the sharks will take a bite out of a stingray. Rays are natural prey for sharks in the wild, so they will sometimes attack them even though they are well fed. When one shark draws blood, the other sharks join to get their own bite, usually leaving but a few scattered parts of the ray. It’s also our job to pick the pieces up, bag them, and bring them to the surface to be thrown out, so they don’t decompose and feed bacteria in the tank. Although I don’t get paid for my service to the aquarium, the experience is priceless. After each show, my team and I swim around the tank high fiving kids through the glass, posing for selfies, and feeling like superstars.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Tony Caro is a senior at Temple University studying English with a concentration in creative writing and an intern at Phawker. Currently living in West Philadelphia, Tony enjoys SCUBA diving and hanging out with his pet rabbit, Loaf.