Saturday, April 28, 2012

Diving with Sharks

Husbandry staff at The Living Planet Aquarium dive in with the sharks once each month. The purpose of the dive is to give the tank a thorough cleaning. The diver scrubs the sides and uses a special gravel vacuum, which is basically a larger version of the plastic tube you would use to clean out your fish tank at home. Because of the tank's resident damsel fish, who like to build burrows, the gravel must be redistributed evenly along the bottom. This causes some upset feelings on the part of the fish, but they quickly get over it and build new burrows.

The 75-degree water feels colder than it sounds. Because of this, the diver will wear a wetsuit. Divers sometimes use SCUBA gear, but more often use a hookah system because it is less cumbersome. A hookah is a surface air supply system, which consists of an air compressor that sits outside of the tank and a long air hose with a regulator (mouth piece) on the end that the diver takes down into the water. There are always two people involved in the process: one diver and one spotter. The spotter keeps an eye on the air supply, hands tools to the diver, and ensures the diver's safety. All staff who dive must first have an open water diver certification. They must also learn the proper protocol for tank dives, go through a skills training program, and learn how to maintain the equipment, a duty of every diver.

But wait, there are sharks in that water! Although many fear sharks, that fear seems to come mainly from fiction rather than fact. In reality, there are fewer humans attacked by sharks than people struck by lightning. Many of these incidents would have been avoidable given a little education. Sharks, like any other animal, can become scared and aggressive if they sense they are in danger. To prevent this, the divers are very careful to avoid bumping into the sharks. They keep track of where all of the sharks are and avoid swimming, as the movement of their arms and legs could easily result in accidental contact with a shark. Instead, they walk along the bottom, held down by weights on their belt and ankles. No diver at the aquarium has ever been bit by the sharks. In fact, the sharks don't seem to care much when the divers are in the tank. If a shark gets in the way of a diver's cleaning efforts, the diver gently pokes its tail, and it swims away. It's the turtle they have to watch out for. The sea turtle who lives with the sharks is very curious and has been known to nibble on the air hose, which the spotter must watch out for.

The divers can see out of the viewing window into the aquarium, although being underwater, they cannot hear anything. If you happen to be at the aquarium when a diver is in the tank, go ahead and wave. The divers enjoy this unique opportunity to communicate with visitors from behind the glass.

Shark Tank sponsor

The Green Sea turtle is proudly sponsored by Tracy and Haydn McBride in memory of Kendall J. McBride.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Birds of the Rainforest Van

Mickey waves to his audience.

With the multitudes of critters you can see at The Living Planet Aquarium, it's hard to believe that there are even more animals being cared for behind the scenes. Those who participate in the aquarium's Penguin Encounter program are brought into a quiet back area and introduced to a group of birds with a special mission. Dusty the African Gray Parrot, Mickey the Eclectus Parrot, and Mingo the Blue and Gold Macaw are trained specifically to take part in the aquarium's Rainforest Van program. 

Mingo shows off his wingspan.
Education staff and a selection of birds travel in the Rainforest Van three times per week to second and third grade classes in the Wasatch area. Using rainforests as the theme, the programs cover elements of the required curriculum for each grade. For second graders, the subjects of the lesson are weather and food chains, while third graders learn about the layers of the rainforest and the difference between living and nonliving things.

For both, the program begins with a map lesson to show the students where rainforests are located. Hands-on, interactive activities engage them in learning about the main concepts. At the end, the birds make their appearance, to the delight of the students. The birds are trained to display natural behaviors, such as extending their wings, hanging upside down, and cracking open nuts. Dusty is particularly good at demonstrating a bird's ability to mimic. The students especially love it when he makes sounds like a UFO.

Last year, the Rainforest Van introduced 9,745 students from 106 different schools to the wonder of the rainforest and some of its most charismatic inhabitants. And the birds? They enjoy the program almost as much as the students, being lavished with attention and having a chance to show off their abilities to an adoring audience.

Dusty hangs upside down.

The Rainforest Van program is free to schools. Funding and support is generously provided by Salt Lake County's Zoos, Arts, and Parks, the Utah State Office of Education, and Informal Science Education Enhancement.