Sunday, January 29, 2006

Rammed by a zebra shark, and happy as a clam!

It's cool how a hobby can make the other parts of your life all the more enjoyable. Now that I've started doing this volunteer diving program with the Long Beach Aquarium, I'm just plain happier. I'm excited every Tuesday because I know I'll get to be in the water with tons of amazing sea creatures. Two weeks ago, the experience was amazing. Not only did I get to feed the giant black sea bass again, but I got to feed the trevali. These are medium size fish that just swarm all around you when you feed them. I was literally at the center of a seemingly impenetrable sphere of hungry fish. Also, the red snappers can be pretty aggressive. I would not want to be feeding most of these fish without my neoprene gloves. During the last dive, Karen, a more experienced diver, suggested that I try something. In the tropical reef tank, there is a large male napoleon wrasse. This fish is about 3.5 feet long, and a beautiful shade of electric aqua blue. (See the picture above) Apparently, he loves the tactile sensation of air bubbles on his skin and in his gill slits. I swam down to the bottom of the exhibit, near a wall, and just started blowing a steady stream of bubbles. Just as Karen said he would, the wrasse mosied on over and levitated just a couple feed above my head, sitting in my bubble stream as if it were some sort of inverse shower. He even opened up his gill slits to let the bubbles caress his gills. It was amazing!

After the dives we heard that, over in the shark tank, a sand tiger shark had bitten the sawfish right on the rostrum (nose). We went down to the shark tank to see how it was, and found the veterinarian and the aquarists keeping the sawfish wet while the splint thay had constructed dried. The splint was basically made of water-safe epoxy and popsicle sticks, and was basically keeping her rostrum from bending much, since the sand tiger had almost broken it. The shark expert saw us lowly volunteer divers and said "Perfect timing! We could use your help!". Since we were already in our wetsuits, he had us help lift the sawfish (a large fish about 5 feet long from tail to end of snout) back into an isolated area of the shark tank. 6 of us slowly lifted her into the tank, which already had two harmless zebra sharks swimming about in it. We carefully tried to step over and around them as they weaved between our legs, much as a cat does when you're trying to feed it. One of them got spooked by another person, and turned and rammed right into my groin. It smarted a bit, but with my wet suit I was fairly well. . . ahem. . . protected. Anyway, when I woke up that morning I hardly thought I'd be rammed in the crotch by a zebra shark while helping rehabilitate an injured sawfish! It was an amazing experience as we watched the anesthetized sawfish slowly start to swim again.

Then, just last week, I got to feed the leopard sharks again. They weren't nearly as interested as they were the last time I fed them. I'm told it's because the water temperature in the Blue Cavern exhibit has been brought down to a balmy 58 deg F. When the water gets colder, the cold-blooded sharks' metabolism slows as well, and their appetite decreases. They did eat a bit, but I kept having to move closer to them and basically put the squid or sardine right under their nose and let them take it from my hand. Also, it was a bit tricky since the halibut (who, I'm told, must be fed using tongs because when they strike their sharp teeth can "take your finger off") kept coming after me. I would typically block their attacks with my fin, or just turn around and swim to another area. . . but I always had to keep them in my peripheral vision.

Later, as I was just getting in for my second dive in Blue Cavern, Chris the aquarist came up to me with about 5 huge sea stars in his arms. He wanted me to swim them down to the bottom and place them on the rocks. No problem! I grabbed three and put them on my arm, keeping my other arm free for buoyancy control and ear-clearing. Down I went, set them on some rocks, and came back up to get the others. Only when I got back to the surface, I found about 10 more waiting for me! After a couple more trips up and down the water column, I returned to the surface to find that the last three sea stars had managed to turn over and were now bellies (and feet) face down on the underwater step. This was bad, because they had grabbed hold of the rocky surface of the step and did not want to let go. I couldn't remove them without hurting them, so I ended up leaving them there. Hopefully they will migrate downward, so they're not in the way of egressing divers.

I'm glad I followed through with this volunteer diving program. It took a decent amount of work: passing an intense swim test, renewing my first aid and cpr certs, getting an oxygen first aid certification, and sitting through several hours of introductory aquarium classes. But it breaks up the monotony that can sometimes arise when all you do is research and organization and, for another couple of weeks, teach. Just the fact that I get to dive every week, for free, among fish I would normally only get to dive with in the carribean or the south pacific, is such a treat that it makes me more enthusiastic about everything else I do. I enjoy my space research more now that it's not the ONLY thing I'm doing.

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