A Most Remarkable Experience

Have you ever felt like jumping into an aquarium?

Well, we didn’t actually jump in. We climbed down a steel ladder.

Geoffrey and Phillip, my two sons, and I are certified, card-carrying SCUBA divers. Between the three of us, we’ve dived in Alaska, California, Mexico, Belize, Honduras, and Thailand. But this was going to be our first time diving in an aquarium.

The Aquarium of the Pacific at Long Beach, California offers an opportunity to take a dip into its Tropical Reef Exhibit modeled after the famous Blue Corner off the coast of Pulao in the South Pacific. Several other aquariums in the United States and other countries offer similar adventures.

L > R Paul, one of our guides, Nancy, Cindy, and the old man

Our adventure started out with an extensive behind-the-scenes tour. Our guides, David and Paul, did show-and-tell of the complicated systems used to maintain the aquarium’s thousands of fish and other sea animals in not just the public displays, but in the extensive research facilities.

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We saw huge pumps pushing thousands of gallons of water through massive filters before it went into the habitats.


We visited quarantine tanks where fish are kept prior to being introduced into displays.

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The guides showed us tanks where shark eggs were incubating and nursery tanks with newborns finning away.

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And we got a peek from above at the Tropical Reef tank we would dive in.

That tank holds 350,000 gallons of manufactured sea water — enough to fill 19 tanker trailers. Manufactured? I was surprised to find out that even though this aquarium is walking distance from the Pacific Ocean, none of its water comes from the sea. It’s too dirty.

By the way, this tank is a relatively small one: the biggest I could find in the US, is 18 times larger. The whale shark exhibit in the Georgia Aquarium (Atlanta, GA) holds 6.3 million gallons! Oh, and it offers a SCUBA opportunity also. I can’t justify going there just for that but you have to know it’s on my list if ever…….

After our dry tour, is was time to gear up and get wet. Except for cameras, masks, boots, and fins the Aquarium of the Pacific provided all the rest of the equipment. For good reason — all their equipment is kept disinfected to protect the habitat. That’s why they took all our personal stuff and subjected it to sterile wash downs.

At the bottom of a steel ladder leading down into the aquarium David gently urged a large ray to move out of our way so we could join it. After one last safety check — air pressure good, regulator normal, weights secure, mask down, buoyancy compensator inflated — I slipped over the wall and into the water. Eye to eye with my guide we gave each other the signal to slip below the surface and begin the adventure.

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Just after entering. Paul adjusting my tank clamps

Phil and Geoff went ahead with David while Paul and I held back to make adjustments to a minor problem with my dive equipment. After a bit we followed along behind the others. As we descended through the crystal clear water, myriad fish, some tiny, some huge, surrounded us displaying every imaginable color. A bonnet shark cruised past, patrolling the area. An eight-foot zebra shark lay resting on the sand below. A cownose ray glided by with barely a twitch of its six-foot wingspan. Suspended motionless under a huge faux coral fan, an immense grouper peered at us with bulging eyes. Faux coral fan?

 

 

 

 

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Bonnet Shark

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Cownose Ray

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Grouper

 

 

Using gentle fin strokes we made our way into the first of three places where the public views the animals. I waved to the people and did “high fives” with some of the youngsters pressing their hands to the 14-inch-thick curved acrylic wall separating us.

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The phony coral fan with the grouper hiding under it? It is there because coral is the most difficult live animal to maintain in an aquarium this huge. Fish and other aquatic animals can tolerate moderate variations in their environment that could be deadly to coral — not to mention the difficulty with the animal’s exotic diet of algae and zooplankton.

So that grouper’s hideout and all the other lifelike plants and structures are simulacra. Some are plastic (the coral fan, for example), others may be rubber or concrete; just as you might buy at Wal-Mart for a home-sized tank. So, just as those decorations in the home aquarium must occasionally be cleaned, a cadre of volunteers armed with scrub brushes and underwater vacuum cleaners, tend to the cleaning chores in the Aquarium of the Pacific.

Except for the confines and diversity of animals, diving in the aquarium was much like dives we’ve done anywhere else. We observed the same safety rules we learned in our training. We experienced the same requirements for pressure equalization and buoyancy. Wending through underwater pathways not apparent to those on the dry side of the walls, it was easy to forget we were swimming in an area less than the point of a pin compared to the real world oceans. Best of all, we had a remarkable experience to enter into our dive logs and, of course, the opportunity to get up close and personal to capture lots of great pictures.

 

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Check with your nearest aquarium and see if they have a dive opportunity waiting for you. Google found some for me in Dubai, Europe, South America, and Africa that I’ve added to my “maybe someday” list.