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City's Best Diving Spot? Volunteering to Clean the New York Aquarium Tanks

By Amy Zimmer | August 7, 2013 7:42am
 The New York Aquarium at Coney Island
NY Aquarium
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CONEY ISLAND — A carpenter, a theater professional and a Nassau County police detective spent a recent Friday morning swimming between the Cuban hogfish and French angels in a massive tank at the New York Aquarium.

These three and nearly 40 others — including doctors, lawyers, chefs, interior designers, firemen and Internet tech gurus — leave behind their diverse day jobs to put on wetsuits, flippers and oxygen tanks and pick up vacuums and scrub brushes every two weeks for what might be the city’s most exotic volunteer gig.

They clean the giant fish tanks of Brooklyn’s most popular tourist destination, often with delighted children looking on.

"We're underwater window washers," joked Avra Cohen, 61, a West Village wood worker, who has been on the volunteer dive team since it started a decade ago and continues to wake up 6:15 a.m. every other week for his 8 a.m. shift.

The aquarium’s volunteer dive team is an essential part of how the institution keeps its tanks looking pristine, officials at the institution said, but the job also gives many an opportunity to practice a sport they love amid fish and sharks and all.

"You get off the train in February and minutes later you're in 74-degree water with morays and sting rays," Cohen said during a break from buffing the 167,000 gallon tank that replicates Glover’s Reef, a coral reef off the coast of Belize.

"It's such a treat. Usually you have to get on an airplane, pack a bag and pay a lot of money to do that."

The volunteers tend to be passionate about marine ecology and the mission of the Wildlife Conservation Society, which runs the aquarium, said Roger Williams, a self-described “eco-hippie” who began as a volunteer six years ago and became the aquarium's dive safety officer and volunteer coordinator in April.

Helping maintain tanks that educate the public about threatened creatures and habitat is a "good reminder of why we dive — divers tend to be conservation-minded," he said.

And even though they join the team to be in the water, the volunteers spent countless hours — on land — helping clean up after Hurricane Sandy’s devastation kept the institution closed for seven months.

“As soon as the roads were passable, these incredibly selfless, dedicated people were here, redoubling their efforts," aquarium director Jon Dohlin said. "They came in and waded into these really muddy conditions, cleaning and sanitizing equipment."

The aquarium is gearing up to expand the dive team and their role as “ambassadors” to the public, Dohlin said, as officials prepare for the 2016 opening of "Ocean Wonders: Sharks!" with a 500,000-gallon tank in a new building (which was five days away from a groundbreaking before Sandy hit), spotlighting the dangers that the toothy creatures face. (The larger brained sea turtles are scarier for the divers than sharks, Dohlin said.)

"We're trying to engage the divers in various areas, not just scrubbing," Williams added.

Cohen joined the team to learn more about fish, but that's not his favorite thing.

"Waving to the kids is always the best part," he said.

Sometimes divers pause from cleaning to post notes to kids on a slate board they carry in the tanks. Post-cleaning, they often walk around in their wetsuits to answer questions.

"One little girl asked me the other day, 'Do you live there?" recounted Joy Passey, 44, a Hell's Kitchen resident who works in theater. "I said, 'At night I turn into a mermaid.'"

Passey started volunteering when she began diving nearly three yeas ago as a way to test out new gear and practice breathing under water. It turned into a life changing experience, spurring her to return to school for a master's degree in education at New York University.

"The goal is to use the arts to educate about environmental issues," she said.

Volunteers must be at least 21 years old and have 25 dives under their belt after being certified, five of which must be in the past year. They must also commit to working a full day once every two weeks, Williams said.

Most don’t consider it a chore.

"It's like meditation," said Rich Perrone, 45, of Gravesend, who started volunteering two years ago after seeing the divers during a visit with his 4-year-old son.

It's a world apart from his job as police officer with the Midtown South Precinct, Perrone said. 

"You come here, you relax," he said.