When your dive buddy is a zebra shark…

Please enjoy this guest post from Stephanie Richards, a member of the National Aquarium Volunteer Dive Team, and learn about how her experiences with dive safety have impacted her life outside of the Aquarium walls.

When your dive buddy is a zebra shark…

Stephanie Richards receiving her DAN Diving First Aid for Professional Divers certification and coin.

Being a diver at the National Aquarium is an amazing experience. Not only do we get to work in exciting underwater environments, we have the opportunity to share our enthusiasm for the aquatic world and educate visitors about the wonderful animals in the Aquarium’s collection.

The top three questions we get as divers are:
3.)  Is the water cold?
2.)  What happened to the turtle’s flipper?
1.)  Aren’t you afraid to go into the water with the sharks/rays?

We live on a water planet and the National Aquarium’s diverse exhibits reflect that immersion experience. Our ability to safely interact with the animals in the exhibits is based on an understanding of animal behavior and a profound respect for the role predators play in the ocean’s natural balance of life. It is a rare opportunity and privilege to work in these exhibits with animals that are normally only seen at a distance in the ocean. Still, the question about our safety also raises another point. In an aquatic facility as complex as the National Aquarium, what do we do if there is a water emergency?

Everywhere you go in the Aquarium you are reminded of life’s dependence on water, how it unifies us all. In the galleries, guests view the exhibits through a window however, behind the scenes, the tops of these tanks are open which allows the aquarist staff to care for the animals and maintain the exhibit. It also poses a potential water safety hazard. Unless you have had the chance to join one of the Aquarium’s special Immersion Tours, you have not yet seen such behind the scenes sights as: the husbandry catwalk suspended above the 260,000 gallon Open Ocean shark tank, the quarantine pools for new arrivals, or the Pacific Octopus and Electric Eel (that can deliver a substantial shock!) from the top of their respective tanks. Each of these habitats represents its own challenges. Whether it is a small estuary tank or a 1.2 million gallon dolphin enclosure, there is an established safety protocol for each location.

Volunteer Divers at the National Aquarium complete the Divers Alert Network (DAN) Diving First Aid for Professional Divers course, as part of our job as an emergency first responder. The DAN programs and additional safety training are incorporated into everyday life at the aquarium. There are just under 200 volunteer divers and approximately 60 staff divers as well as most of the front line staff that receive this specialized instruction. Knowing how to recognize an emergency, properly use the available rescue equipment, and work as a team are essential skills to a successful rescue. 

My team and I getting ready for a water extraction from the Wings in the Water exhibit

To keep our skills sharp, the dive teams have practice drills in the exhibits during visitor hours. This gives us a more realistic training experience and also demonstrates to the public the importance of emergency training. Performing water rescue extractions from the exhibits (with upwards of 500 visitors watching) over dive platforms and through narrow gates is a true team effort… not to mention the added excitement of working around the occasional curious sea turtle, shark, or moray eel! We are trained how to assist during medical emergencies both in and out of the water. Additionally, there are strategically stationed pieces of rescue equipment; such as Automatic Emergency Defibrillators (AED), water retrieval/floatation devices, and emergency response buttons located throughout the Aquarium buildings.

Aquarium diving is a specialized form of SCUBA. Much like wreck diving, additional training is necessary to be safe in an enclosed and complex environment. Due to the nature of the sport and a desire to keep ourselves and our dive buddies safe, many of the volunteer divers already have some level of first aid certification. The National Aquarium’s required rescue training takes water safety and emergency preparedness to another level. Our Dive Safety Officer, Chuck Eicholz, and his staff have done an outstanding job of ensuring that we have what we need to safely enjoy doing our job. As divers and volunteer staff we are routinely offered opportunities for additional training provided by the Aquarium that benefits both staff and visitors alike.

The events in Baltimore associated with the 5.8 magnitude earthquake that centered in nearby Virginia on August 23, 2011 are a perfect example of the quality and efficiency of the Aquarium’s emergency planning. It was a day when all of the drills and training were put to the test. The entire Aquarium (both buildings in Baltimore) needed to be evacuated quickly and safely. The staff immediately went into action. Every Exhibit Guide knew the planned visitor evacuation routes, the Aquarist Staff saw to the needs of the animals in the collection, and everyone worked together to ensure the safety of all involved.

This safety-oriented mindset applies not just to our work as divers at the Aquarium, but also in our everyday lives. I realized this while chaperoning my daughter’s fifth grade field trip to a waterpark in June of 2011. Suddenly, I realized something was terribly wrong and found myself sprinting across the deck and into the water. A lifeguard was just coming to the surface with one of the children. No whistle, no splash. In fact, none of the other children nearby realized what had happened. As it turns out, one of the students had never been to a pool and the family did not tell the school that she couldn’t swim. On the lazy river ride, surrounded by friends and in only hip-deep water, she had suffered a near-drowning experience.

I was able to assist the lifeguard with the rescue and helped secure the child on a backboard for extraction from the water. It was amazing how fast everything happened and I was extremely grateful to have the training necessary to be of use when it was most needed. Recognizing an emergency, treating someone in the water, extraction with a backboard, basic first aid for shock, and working with the paramedics were all integral parts of my Aquarium training. Being certified to respond to emergency situations changes the way you look at your surroundings. For example, the way I had positioned myself to watch over the children at the pool reflected what I had been taught at the Aquarium. One of the Aquarium’s safety requirements is that there is always a “Surface Tender” present when divers are in the exhibits. This person must be a certified diver, wears a special radio, and is trained in emergency procedures. The Surface Tenders are also friendly, knowledgeable Aquarium volunteers who are available to answer guest questions and assist the Aquarists, but their first priority is the safety of the divers. What I realize now is that, during the field trip, I had positioned myself like a Surface Tender to watch over the children at the waterpark.

While this near-tragedy on the field trip was accidental, nothing about the rescue was. Working with other trained responders, I realized that it was the National Aquarium’s safety-oriented mindset and the comprehensive DAN training I had received that made the difference in my actions that day. You never know when your emergency skills may be needed.

Click here to read a full article, “Skills in Action”, about Stephanie’s pool incident. This feature was recently published in Alert Diver magazine’s winter 2012 edition.

6 Responses to “When your dive buddy is a zebra shark…”


  1. 1 DennisS. March 13, 2012 at 10:54 am

    I have to ask though. Have you all had anyone fall into the Wings in the Water exhibit yet?

  2. 2 Dick March 13, 2012 at 11:27 am

    Great article! I like her writing style!

  3. 3 becky tallman March 13, 2012 at 9:38 pm

    Well written by a fabulous diver and team member! Stephanie is well trained and skilled in and out of the water. She makes me proud!

    • 4 Stephanie Richards March 14, 2012 at 11:36 am

      Thank you, Becky! May I return the professional compliment to one of my dive team’s Co- Captains? It definitely is a team effort and a picture is worth a thousand words… I do believe those are your photographic skills showcased in the WATERlog posting! Without you I would not have a photo of how surprised/proud I was to be awarded the DAN Challenge Coin and recognition certificate. I am very proud to be part of the Tuesday “A” dive team!

  4. 5 National Aquarium March 14, 2012 at 9:29 am

    Thanks for the fantastic compliments Dick & Becky! We’ll be sure to pass them along to Stephanie!

  5. 6 National Aquarium March 22, 2012 at 10:22 am

    Hi Dennis S., the answer to your question is no! However, we have a trained emergency response team and a plan in place for water rescue, both internal and external.


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