A variety of dive programs at aquariums around the United States are opening the eyes of children — and of experienced divers — to the many wonders under the sea.AN AIR OF EDGY ANTICIPATION hangs over the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Great Tide Pool exhibit. Beneath the surface, in the crystal clear water, anemones undulate and pink sea stars cling to rocks. Seven small forms in dry suits, child-size dive tanks snug on their backs, stand at the water’s edge peering out at the placid water, which covers an area roughly the size of your neighbor’s backyard pool — only your neighbor’s pool doesn’t contain monkeyface-eels , giant green anemones, and softball-size sheep crabs.
Until 2003, visitors to California’s Monterey Bay Aquarium simply leaned over the railings and gaped openmouthed at these tide pool critters. But now, having adopted an innovative idea that has recently taken hold in a big way in a handful of aquariums across the country, the Monterey Bay Aquarium lets visitors participate in an experience that’s, well, decidedly more fins-on. From New Jersey to California, aquariums are offering visitors not just a look at their toothy sand tiger sharks and reclusive octopuses but also the chance to jump in the water with them.
Not that everyone wants to hop right in. The Monterey Bay Aquarium ’s Underwater Explorers program caters strictly to kids ages eight to 13 (“We focus on the kids because we feel they’re more impressionable,” explains Justin Kantor, the Underwater Explorers coordinator), and on this bright summer morning, more than a few of the underwater explorers look like small, very uneasy astronauts. Given the world they are about to enter, it’s not an inappropriate comparison.
Down and away from the raised tide pool, the real-deal ocean breathes.
“Some of them are a little apprehensive at first,” says Sean Swing, an Underwater Explorers instructor. “Maybe 10 percent of them have dived before.” Swing grins. “But watch what happens.”