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Differences in Aquarium vs. Open Water Diving

Posted on Oct 6, 2016 by in Education

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Aquarium diving is one of the OSHA designated commercial diving categories.  While a lot of us are certified recreational divers and relatively familiar with the recreational diving training agencies (PADI, NAUI, SSI, SDI, et al) few of us know or need be concerned with the OSHA diving requirements. The most significant difference between OSHA and the recreational organizations is that OSHA is a regulatory agency that has the authority to inspect for, and enforce, regulations pertaining to diving operations. In fact, OSHA has the same regulations for GCA divers in 4 feet of water in an aquarium as it does for commercial heavy gear dives offshore in the Gulf of Mexico, 300 feet, deep breathing advanced gases and using welding tools. These regulations can sometimes be burdensome for aquarium divers as most aquarium diver staff have a background in recreational diving not commercial diving. Recreational dive training organizations operate as a framework in which guidelines for training and recreational diving activities are provided, but have little to no legal enforcement authority. Many commercial divers get there start as recreational diver and then have to cross over into to the OSHA regulated commercial industry. Our dive staff here are considered commercial working divers by OSHA.

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The aquarium diving environment is different in several regards. Each exhibit is a standalone environment. Water temperature, visibility and the marine animals in each are well known in advance and rarely change. This makes dive planning much easier. One challenge in aquariums is that many of the exhibits are rather small. Most of the exhibits at the GCA are so small only a single diver can fit into the exhibit. For this reason we often utilize surface supplied air systems where divers are tethered and tendered while in the water and air is provided for them through hoses. Surface supplied diving is distinctly different from SCUBA diving scuba stands for Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus; by definition surface supplied diving is not scuba diving as it is not self-contained. All of our dive staff must be trained in surface supplied and tendering techniques.

Cross contamination considerations in aquarium diving is part of everyday operations. As recreational divers we do not think twice about diving in the lake and then making a dive in a quarry without a thorough decontamination of our equipment. In an aquarium, moving germs, parasites or hitchhikers between exhibits can be a very costly mistake. Aquarium divers soak their gear in a decontamination tank, they themselves also spend time in a decontamination tank before in each exhibit different exhibit. The decontamination process consists of all dive gear and wetsuits getting soaked for a minimum of ten minutes in either freshwater or a light sodium hypochlorite bath  Additionally, tools for cleaning and maintenance are designated by exhibit and not shared unless first going through the decontamination process.  This helps prevent the spread of disease or parasites by removing or killing them before entering a new exhibit.

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Typical recreational diving equipment may include cameras, lift bags and simple tools. At the aquarium our tools are more commonly oriented towards maintenance; shark stick, scrub brushes, underwater vacuum systems and acrylic cleaning pads are the most common. The shark stick is a PVC “L” and is carried on every dive in the Shark Exhibit. We use the shark stick as a visual aid to let the animals know when they are getting to close. By holding the stick in front of the animal they will naturally move to avoid the stick and therefore the diver.

Guest interactions are a big part of the dive team’s job. We often will stop work to exchange “High Fives” with a guest, display a shark tooth or just wave to a guest. Dive shows with communications between the divers and guests are a big part of our day. The emphasis during these sessions is to educate by answering questions, have fun with guests and generally enhance the GCA experience. We want to show all of our guests especially children that we are not afraid of sharks and that divers and sharks can coexist and not have issues, there is no reason to be afraid of the ocean and it is something worth protecting. The dive team also participates in holiday celebrations with costumes and additional seasonal activities such as Scuba Claus and Hauntaquaium.

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