Framework

Capturing the world through photography, video and multimedia

Volunteer diver Rafael Lanus waves to exhibit guests on the other side of the glass of the 78-degree, 28-foot deep, 350,000-gallon tropical reef exhibit at the Aquarium of The Pacific in Long Beach. The diver at right is John Waskiesicz. The Tropical Reef is designed after a dive spot known as the Blue Corner in Palau, Micronesia. The volunteers conduct animal husbandry, maintenance, education, scientific dives and monitor the health of the animals.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times

A crowd gathers to watch a Queensland grouper, bottom, and a whitemargin unicornfish, top, swim in the 350,000-gallon Tropical Reef Habitat.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times

Volunteer diver Sandra Stewart feeds a cownose ray some broccoli in the 350,000-gallon Tropical Reef Habitat.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times

Volunteer diver Rafael Lanus does his spiderman impression much to the delight of people on the other side of the glass, viewing the 350,000-gallon Tropical Reef Habitat exhibit.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times

A young boy watches an olive ridley sea turtle swim in the 350,000-gallon Tropical Reef Habitat.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times

A giant sea bass swims high above viewers in the 55-to-65-degree water of the 142,000-gallon, three-story high Honda Blue Cavern exhibit at the Aquarium of the Pacific. Modeled after the popular dive spot Blue Cavern Point, a kelp forest along the northeastern coast of Santa Catalina Island, the exhibit features a variety of sea life, including the California moray eel and California sheephead.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times

Two giant sea bass swim near volunteer diver Jim Hill while he gives an educational presentation through a microphone-fitted mask amid kelp in the 142,000-gallon, three-story high Honda Blue Cavern exhibit.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times

A young girl watches Jim Hill, a volunteer diver, give an educational lecture through a special dive mask fitted with a microphone as he is surrounded by more than 1,000 tropical fish, including a zebra shark at center in the 78-degree, 28-foot deep, 350,000-gallon tropical reef exhibit.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times

Volunteer diver Sandra Stewart records video as more than 1,000 tropical animals, including a Tahiti butterflyfish, left, Queensland grouper, top right, and southern stingray swim passed in the 350,000-gallon Tropical Reef Habitat at the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times

Volunteer diver Sandra Stewart, one of 234 volunteer divers, is surrounded by a variety of tropical fish as she feeds them broccoli in the 350,000-gallon Tropical Reef Habitat.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times

"Bubbles," a golden spadefish, playfully swims back and forth through volunteer diver Rafael Lanus' bubbles in the 350,000-gallon Tropical Reef Habitat.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times

A palette surgeonfish (this species was Dory from "Finding Nemo"), center, and a humpback unicornfish, right, play in the current from a pipe as Gwen Severance cleans the artificial reef of the 350,000-gallon Tropical Reef Habitat.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times

Vounteer diver Sandra Stewart feeds a palette surgeonfish (this species was Dory from "Finding Nemo") broccoli in the 350,000-gallon Tropical Reef Habitat.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times

David Cannan, Aquarium of The Pacific volunteer dive master and certified scientific diver, is one of 234 volunteer scuba divers at the aquarium. He looks over the top of the 350,000-gallon Tropical Reef Habitat after a recent dive.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times

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Swimming with the fishes at the Aquarium of the Pacific

By Allen J. Schaben, Los Angeles Times

The dive is on.

Ker-plash. We descend through bubbles into an undersea domain wearing air tanks, regulators and fins.

Listening to the pneumatic hiss-whoosh of my own breathing, the various species of this marine world begin to appear. Sharks prowl sandy shoals. Bat rays with 4-foot wing spans soar overhead. Schools of fish whirl like glittering tornadoes. A Queensland grouper large enough to swallow me whole cruises past.

Scuba sends people around the world. On this dive, however, I’m in the 350,000-gallon Tropical Reef Habitat at the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach on assignment for the Los Angeles Times to chronicle, with underwater cameras, the daily experiences of the facility’s volunteer divers.

These men and women help the aquarium by feeding animals, observing their behaviors and cleaning artificial rock and coral displays with equipment ranging from toothbrushes to power washers. Qualifications include that the divers be “rescue certified,” at least 18 years old and able to pass an American Academy of Underwater Sciences physical.

In this dive, my first with members of the group, a swarm of giggling children gather in front of the massive tank designed to replicate a coral reef in the tropical dive Mecca of Palau, a group of islands west of the Philippines.

We wave as the kids press closer to ponder the spectacle. One little girl blows us a kiss.

Back in the tank, we’re looking apex predators right in the face. A sleek 8-foot-long thresher shark orbits, then approaches for a closer look at the human intruders. I hear the thumping of my own heart as it peers into my mask with big menacing eyes. I try to stay calm as it brushes me aside with its tail.

Eventually, I learn to relax and even enjoy rubbing shoulders with the denizens of this temperature-controlled environment: zebra sharks, bonnethead sharks, giant southern stingrays, honeycomb moray eels, giant sea bass and sea anemones.

For this shoot, I’m armed with a Canon Mark 5D MarkII with AquaTech water housing, a 16-35mm 2.8 lens and off-camera flash. I’m also using suction cups to mount two additional cameras to the aquarium glass so that I can have three different angles of the same shoot.

Without a tripod to keep the camera stable while shooting video, it’s a challenge to remain steady and get into the right angles without my own air bubbles getting in the way or massive fish pushing me around.

Ultimately, I did four dives in June with the volunteers. The experience deepened my appreciation for their efforts and for the diversity of life in the world’s ocean.

One of these days, with more experience under my belt, I’ll venture to more exotic waters, perhaps even Palau.

Divers who are interested in participating in the aquarium’s volunteer diving program may contact the aquarium at (562) 590-1630, facebook.com/aquariumofthepacific or Twitter: @AquariumPacific.

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