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The guy who runs Oceanblue Divers has offered me a "regular" spot on the website blog. I like the idea of it but am afraid I lack the discipline to write regularly about my experiences diving. And yet I enjoy talking about my diving so much, maybe I should. So I want to get some notes down about yesterday's experience at the aquarium.

As a member of a NY Aquarium dive team, you get an assignment every 2 weeks on your designated day. Most of the time the assignment is diving in and cleaning an exhibit, for instance, the sea otter exhibit or a coral reef tank. Another possible assignment is surface support, which means you don't dive but keep track of the divers in the water and communicate with keepers and the volunteer coordinator. A third possiblility is being assigned to work in the coral lab, which I had the pleasure of doing for the first time yesterday.

I was asked to help Mike, who is one of the coral lab keepers. One of his many responsibilities is maintaining the aquarium's coral nursery, a room of about 12 large tanks that house baby corals, coral-dwelling fish (Nemo!), and even sea monkeys (aka brine shrimp). [Note to self: Sea Monkeys would be a great name for a dive club.] The aquarium grows the corals for use in smaller exhibits, particularly the ones in the part of the aquarium known as Conservation Hall.

Every day the water temperature of each tank must be taken and each night, calcium must be added to the water for the health of the corals. You may already know that corals are very sensitive to changes in water temperature. But did you know corals like a very low nutrient environment? That's partly why coral reefs are such great places to dive -- the water is clear because of a lack of nutrients. At the aquarium, plants are sometimes added to the tanks to soak up these nutrients. The water up around here, in contrast, is loaded with nutrients, which makes the water green and murky. Coral also need calcium to survive. In the ocean this comes from disintegrating seashells and sand, but at the aquarium it must be added to the water. Water must also be occasionally added to the tanks to compensate for the water that evaporates. This is also why the salinity of the water must constantly be measured.

My task was to go around and take the temperature of each tank. Then, with Mike's help, I filled the calcium drip buckets on top of each tank with RO water, which has been cleaned by reverse osmosis. At night this calcium solution is allowed to drip slowly into each tank. My third task was to check the salinity of each tank using a tool called a refractometer. After calibrating the tool with RO water (zero salinity) I went around to each tank and put 3 droplets of water on the "screen" and then looked through the other end like a kalidescope, where I could see a display telling me how much salt is in the water in parts per thousand (ppt). If the salinity was too low I called Mike over and he showed me how to add salt into the tank's filtration system.

Another fun part of being on coral lab duty is mandatory break at 10 AM every day. I now know the Aquarium cafe serves cheap breakfast before the park is open to the public. :)

After our break Mike took me on a brief tour of the Conservation Hall filtration systems. Mostly this involved Mike talking a lot about backwash and semi-closed versus open systems. I nodded a lot and asked just enough questions to make it seem like I knew what he was talking about. The filtration systems for that exhibit are all brand new and computer-controlled, and I can tell Mike is really excited about them. He also showed me the frog room, where there are several small tanks of different types of frogs. There was a White's tree frog, a tomato frog, and a tank of African bullfrogs, among others.

At around noon, just when we were about to feed bloodworms to the fish kept in the room next to the coral lab, the volunteer coordinator came around to collect us and call it a day. Mike told me the aquarium is understaffed and that just those small tasks that I helped do saved him a lot of time for other things he's responsible for, like payroll. He told me I'm welcome to come volunteer at the coral lab any day, and I get the sense that if I had the time and the inclination, I could basically be an aquarist's apprentice.
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