Volunteer Diving at the California Academy of Sciences

By Gayle Hudson

At the March General Meeting, we enjoyed a informative presentation by George Bell, Senior Volunteer Diver for the California Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park.

We learned that, under one living roof, the Academy is a serious research institution whose scientists engage in expeditions all over the world and the museum the public sees is just the tip of the iceberg. George explained the research institution was founded 1853, with the Kimball Museum of Natural History opening to the public in 1874, followed by Steinhart Aquarium in 1923 and Morrison Planetarium in 1952. The innovative and iconic Fish Roundabout, which some may remember, was completed in 1977 and the aquarium was the first aquarium to successfully hold a Great White Shark. The museum was completely rebuilt in 2008, covering 400,000 square feet and it remains one of the largest research collections in the world, second only to the Smithsonian, with over 26 million specimens.

The Academy is divided into four sections:

  1. Kimball Natural History Museum includes Africa Hall, the East Wing (which displays the Foucault pendulum), the West Wing with geophysical exhibits, and the ‘Project Lab” where visitors can view scientists engaged in research.
  2. Morrison Planetarium houses the world’s largest and completely digital planetarium dome.
  3. Rainforests of the World is a four-story, 90’ glass dome featuring wildlife from the forests of Madagascar, Costa Rica and the Amazon River.
  4. Steinhart Aquarium houses fish and aquatic life from around the world.

George joined the Academy as a volunteer diver in 2000, and explained divers are in the tanks 365 days a year so the Academy has a continuous need for volunteer divers.  Facilities for the divers include a fully stocked dive locker, locker room and showers.  All SCUBA equipment is provided, including cylinders, weights, exposure suits, masks, fins, etc.; volunteer divers only need provide a swimsuit and towel.

The diving modes used at the Academy are SCUBA, surface supply (hose and full face mask with communications equipment) and snorkeling.  Training is involved but is not complicated and all science and volunteer divers at the Academy follow safety procedures as outlined by the American Academy of Underwater Sciences (AAUS), as well as Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

The Philippine Coral Reef tank, one of the deepest live-coral exhibits in the world, is 212,000 gallon tank with over 1,400 individual fish, representing more than 110 species. The public is treated to a twice-daily show so all diver volunteers are needed to participate in this activity.

Divers are also in the California coastal exhibit and the Amazon Flooded Forest (sometimes to retrieve objects visitors drop into the flooded basin floor, where the red-tailed catfish are quick to find lost objects and eat them).  Once weekly, volunteers are in the African Penguin tank, which also houses the seldom seen and nocturnal pajama sharks.  Peripheral exhibits, where volunteers may also be needed to perform tasks include the Giant Pacific Octopus, Caribbean Reef, Rocky Reef, Alligator Gar, Southern California Exhibit, Shark and Ray Lagoon, and various Pop-up exhibits.

George emphasized aquarium diving is not easier or harder than recreational diving but is different and volunteer divers need to be willing to learn how to enter and exit each exhibit, navigate tight spaces, exercise caution around breakable items, be aware of currents, and exercise caution with wildlife – an example of which is escaping butterflies which can carry pathogens or moving slowly among large fish to avoid startling them.  Hazards to divers include urchins and barnacles, spiny fish, biters and the wave machine.  Tasks include cleaning the exhibit and intakes, invertebrate feeds and other maintenance as needed.  All of the water features at the Academy need maintenance, which is basically underwater janitorial work, including algae scrubbing and periodic polishing of the acrylic tunnel in the Amazon Flooded Forest, so divers are needed to help out with those tasks as well.

The Academy offers opportunities to dive in the Aquarium every day of the week.  A typical day is three dives, with Amazon Rainforest/California Coastal dives in the morning and then the Philippine tank show, which are scheduled at 11:30 am and 2:30 pm.  Divers work an hour shift during the show, from 11:00 am to noon, or 2:00 pm to 3:00 pm, diving and accommodating other divers.  The shift includes a 20-30 minute dive time, along with cleaning, husbandry and training.

The Academy is looking for volunteer divers who are reliable, consistent and can be counted on to work a required eight hours each month (either two four-hour shifts or one full day).  Ideally, volunteer staffing is at a sufficient level so a three-person dive team is available daily at the Academy.

A very important task is a volunteer’s interaction with the public.  Volunteer divers are also Academy ambassadors and visitors often want to interact and talk with staff, so volunteer divers must be comfortable interacting with the public.

The requirements to apply as a volunteer diver are:  1) minimum of 50 logged SCUBA dives; 2) current CPR, First Aid, O2 Administration, AED, Field Neuro; 3) hold a current Rescue SCUBA Diver certification; 4) pass the Academy diver medical exam; and 5) pass the Academy swimming and SCUBA diving skill pool evaluation (which includes the ability to swim 400 yards in 12 minutes, plus 25 yards underwater).  There is no upper age limit to be a volunteer diver at the Aquarium.

George’s enthusiasm for volunteer diving at the Aquarium is infectious and he said the Academy is a great place to learn because divers become much more aware of ocean conditions, animal care and absorb a lot of information.  He said it is satisfying work, with the ability to contribute something valuable to the organization and everyone who works there thinks they have the best job in the building. No matter what mood he is in when he arrives, George said he feels better when he walks out of the building at the end of a shift.

George Bell’s introduction to Volunteer Diver opportunities was excellent and we hope to have more California Academy of Sciences presentations at future meetings.

Read more about volunteering at the California Academy of Sciences and contact Narineh Nazarian, Volunteer Dive Coordinator.