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January 1st, 2007

On Saturday and Sunday, I had my first two apprenticeships as an aquarist assistant. Because I am a weekend volunteer, scheduling these has been difficult. There are nine aquarists, and they take turns covering weekends, so any single aquarist only works every four or five weekends. My aquarist, Keri, was on vacation for much of December, so this was her first weekend of coverage.

Because there are only two aquarists on the weekends doing the jobs of nine, weekend shifts are notoriously interesting...and in need of volunteers. Therefore, I found myself in more places than my assigned gallery, but that in itself was cool.

Keri's gallery is "Fourth Floor" and includes the kelp forest, Pacific coral reef, the Amazon river forest, and the two tanks in the upland rainforest on the fifth floor. The kelp forest, reef, and upland rainforest are all smallish tanks with a variety of fish, but the Amazon river forest (abbreviated ARF) is a massive spread of five different enclosures that include a variety of fish, reptiles, and small mammals in both terrestrial and aquatic environments.

SaturdayCollapse )

SundayCollapse )

November 11th, 2006

Today was our final day of aquarist training. Thank goodness, we have our Saturdays back for the first time (with one exception) since early September! For this final class, we started with the exam, then had a few more lectures, which were admittedly lighter now that everyone wasn't feeling pressured to cram in everything for the exam.

After the exam, Bobby and I finished early and got to go with a group on the shark catwalk, which is the narrow catwalk built over the shark tank. They are fed from there, and you can look down on them in the tank. It was cool to see them swimming past with dorsal fins sliding through the water like Jaws. We have three kinds of sharks in our shark tank: sand tigers, sandbars, and nurse sharks. Despite listening to an entire lecture on shark myths, one of the few questions asked of the staff member who took us out on the catwalk: Are these sharks more dangerous than those in the wild because they're used to being fed things being stuck into the tank? *facepalm* When will people realize that sharks--especially sand tigers--are not really dangerous, anymore than honeybees are dangerous? Yes, they will bite if provoked, and they make the occasional mistake, but it's only something like four people killed by sharks each year...and how many more by firearms, automobiles, peanuts? Yet people are not obsessed with the "danger" of those things. Nrgh. Our dive instructor dives regularly with sand tigers on a wreck in North Carolina, and he still has all of his fingers, so far as I could tell.

General Thoughts on TrainingCollapse )

October 25th, 2006

Yesterday, Bobby and I took off from work to drive out to the Catoctin Mountains and hike to Cat Rock. Fall colors are in full effect here in Maryland, and we had a perfect autumn day for our hike: cool crisp air, a slight breeze (that became outright wind by the time we reached the summit!), and thick clouds rolling overhead. The map rated the trail "difficult" and called the hike "strenuous," and it didn't lie. 1.25 miles mostly uphill...and I am out-of-shape from having spent the last few weeks sitting around under the pretense of letting my hip heal. However, we took 75 pictures along the way, all of which are here. A more limited selection of some of my favorites will be posted in my personal LiveJournal.

Cat Rock Hike PicturesCollapse )

October 22nd, 2006

About a month ago, Bobby and I were accepted at the National Aquarium in Baltimore as aquarist assistants. It is an unpaid position requiring at least one four-hour shift every other week, so it is not a huge workload, but it is a foot in the door of a field in which we both hope to eventually work.

Yesterday, we had our first day of training.

First Day of Aquarist-Assistant TrainingCollapse )

October 1st, 2006

As though the title didn't say it all....

We both passed our confined water dives!

Read more...Collapse )

September 26th, 2006

Last week was our first session underwater, and I discovered that--like it or not--my status as a human makes scuba-diving challenging. Our bodies are not built for prolonged stays underwater; as I told Bobby, if we were meant to stay for long periods underwater at depth, we would not get the bends. As such, our psychology is not built for long stays underwater at depth either. Likely, the people who tried to stay under for very long times at very deep depths were not the ones whose genes survived to propagate the species. (Although free divers can hold their breaths for upwards of seven minutes and dive deeper than 100 ft/33 m on a single breath!) Those who were afraid of or conservative in the water, on the other hand, stood a better chance.

I have come to terms that diving is not so much about physical ability as about the mental and emotional ability to overcome my natural inclinations.

On Fears of Drowning...and Getting over ItCollapse )

September 19th, 2006

Breathing Underwater?!Collapse )

The Aquarium

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Yesterday when I arrived home from a rather drab day at work (so what else is new), I checked my email before I came home and discovered the message I had either been looking forward to, or dreading, all day long. It was from the volunteer manager at the National Aquarium In Baltimore, and it was in regards to the aquarist assistant position that Dawn and I interviewed for on Saturday.

Although the interview went extremely well, I didn’t want to jinx our chances so I didn’t really think about it all weekend. But here it was, the answer to whether or not we got the job.

A bit of explaining might be in order here to flesh out exactly why I was so nervous about opening the email. The aquarist assistant position enables one to work behind the scenes at the National Aquarium, helping the full-time aquarists care for the animals and their environments. Given that Dawn and I have decided to refocus out career goals on marine science, the uniqueness and importance for such an opportunity is quite clear, especially given our motivations to seek post-graduate degrees in biology (not putting the cart before the horse, just a bit of per-planning).

Other opportunities were available for us to get our feet in the door, so to speak, but I think that we both wanted the aquarist assistant position because it is most applicable to our pursuits.

With all of these thoughts in mind, I opened the email, and…I got the position!!!!

Now, one part was done, but what about Dawn? This whole thing wouldn’t work if she didn’t get it as well. As soon as she came home I pounced on her and told her to check her email. She did and she also got the position!

We will start our training in a few weeks, and it is awesome because at least once every two weeks, we get to go hang out with the rays and sharks!
After a wonderful weekend, on Sunday, the day finally arrived; it was time to breath underwater. We got to class early and fetched all of our equipment, carried it, albeit awkwardly, to the car, and went to the classroom for our learning module three. The night before was filled with dive tables (more on this later), and a lack of good sleep, but amazingly, I managed to remain alert throughout class even though we were in an air-conditioned room that was very conducive to sleep.

When we got to the pool in Laurel, we donned our gear, which was much easier than anticipated due in large part to the excellent demonstration given by our instructor, Bill. After doing our pre-dive BWRAF check, it was a seated entry into the water. With all of the weights, gear, tank, and everything else on, it amazes me how buoyant a BCD and wet suit make you. I just floated in the water for a few minutes, relaxing, and taking it all in. Then it was time for business, with the regulator in our mouths, we were told to put our heads underwater and breath. I ducked down beneath the veil of water molecules and air bubbles blowing steadily and reassuringly from my regulator, and there I was, breathing underwater! It was an experience that I will never forget.

We then descended to the shallow end of the pool, which was still deep enough to require a decent swim to the top. At this point, Bill began going through the different skills required for PADI certification. One by one, he demonstrated the skill and stood in front of us as we each performed the assigned tasks. With a bit of nervousness and some trepidation, on numerous occasions I took the regulator out of my mouth and performed skills such as breathing from Dawn’s octopus, retrieving a lost regulator, inflating a BCD, and exchanging between the regulator and the snorkel. It’s pretty damn scary and unnatural to remove you only source of air as you sit, weighted down, on the bottom of a pool, But with a cool head, and some thought, the skills are actually quite easy. In my opinion, SCUBA is just one of those things that becomes easier with practice. The more times you flood your mask and remove it, or find a lost regulator, the better you will become at it.

In my opinion, and I think everyone in our class would agree with me, the scariest thing we did was removing our mask underwater, and then replacing and clearing it. When you remove the mask, it is very difficult to breath because the water and bubbles from your exhale breath tends to shoot up your nose. Scary, but not something that can be overcome with some practice.

While I performed all of the necessary skills, there were a few that I would like to practice a bit more just for my own edification. These include inflating the BCD underwater (which I did just fine when I discovered that you had to hold in the deflate button on the BCD, duh), removing and replacing my mask, working with the BCD inflator/deflator, and sharing air with Dawn. While I plan to practice every skill we learned, I will focus on these as they either gave me a bit of trouble, or were important actions that I would just like some practice in.

All in all the dive went extremely well, and I am very confident in my abilities. Next week we go through some more skills, which should be much easier now considering that we spent 90 minutes underwater on Sunday.

September 12th, 2006

To the Pool!

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After much anticipation the day finally arrived on Sunday, the first day of dive training. After visiting the Caribbean, and doing quite a bit of soul searching, our feet have finally regained a path that grants us a sense of peace, serenity, and purpose. But for this journey we needed some hiking boots, and this is exactly what dive training will provide for us.

When we walked past the threshold of the dive shop, it felt a bit like coming home. Even though we have only been there a few times, the familiar faces, smells, and sights provided a bit of intrigue before the class began. For it was at this time, that in my mind, it finally clicked, we were on our way to becoming fully certified scuba divers.

With excitement and anticipation we started trying on gear. First the wet suit. At first I put on what I thought was an XL, but after consultation with our instructor, the reason it felt so comfortable was because it was to big, it was an XXL. For those not in the know, wetsuits are supposed to be extremely, and I emphasize extremely, tight fitting because their whole purpose is to prevent cold water from funneling past the body, which causes ambient heat loss. So, I picked up an XL and, after much work, put it on and zipped it up. It was very warm, and restricting, but in the water, the suit will expand and become less warm, but not much less.

Next was the BCD (buoyancy compensating device), or buoyancy compensator for short, the instructor fit me in an XL and all of my gear was a done deal after consulting with the instructor about the amount of weights I needed in my weight belt.

We then went into the classroom, filled out some paperwork required by PADI, and started to get to know our dive master. Bill, is quite a funny guy who reminds me a lot of a good friend of our family, he is a good guy, really laid back, interesting, and very competent on all things scuba. We share many of the same philosophies on diving, and life in general. He like to dive with sharks, thinks deep diving is a waste if there is no outward purpose in it (such as seeing a wreck), and he appreciates the intricacies of marine life. I couldn’t agree with him more on all of these points. I feel incredibly comfortable learning with him, and for this I am grateful.

We then went to the pool to complete our watermanship assessment. PADI requires a 200-yard swim and 10-minute water tread for certification. This is normally no problem for me. I am very competent in the water, I have been for my entire life, and I can normally pound out laps. However, I had a bit of trepidation about the test because of the nasty injury to my ankle that I sustained the previous Wednesday as I went crashing into the boards, feet first, during an ice hockey game. The fear was compounded by the fact that Dawn and I did a practice swim on Friday night, and after a successful first attempt, I got an incredibly painful stabbing sensation in my ankle on the second try.

On Sunday, I got into the pool last, took a deep breath, and was off. I used a sort of modified breaststroke that wouldn’t work my ankle too badly. The laps started counting off, I had no problems, and the swim was over in no time without any ankle pain! We did our ten-minute survival float, and I was ecstatic. Ever since the injury to my ankle, I was stressing over the swim test, but I set a mental goal, and smashed through it. Even with a bad ankle, I was still lapping several other swimmers, and I was by far nowhere near the last person to finish the test. Awesome stuff.

We then headed back to the classroom and finished modules one and two of the learning material. PADI structures its learning by providing reading, tests, videos, and classroom instruction, all designed to beat concepts into your head (which is very important because some of the concepts really are life and death type matters. We completed review tests for each section and I scored perfectly on both of them.

After class, it dawned on me that we were now ¼ of the way toward getting our C-cards (and I am that much closer to getting my hammerhead shark and dive flag tattoo on my shoulder)! I can’t wait for next week as the rubber hits the road, and for the first time, we breath underwater.
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