- The Washington Times - Monday, July 3, 2006

ATLANTA (AP) — Six hours after her late-night shift ended, emergency-room pediatrician Lily Gomez donned scuba gear and prepared to spend an hour underwater monitoring 20-foot sharks.

As a diving volunteer for the world’s largest aquarium, Mrs. Gomez enjoys getting closer than most visitors to the main attractions — four 2,000-pound whale sharks, the only ones outside Asia. It’s also a chance for the 47-year-old mother to relax and interact with the awed children who watch her swimming from the other side of the glass.

“There’s something magical about making contact,” she said, describing how the children’s faces light up when they see a person smiling and waving from inside the tank at the Georgia Aquarium.

Large aquariums around the country increasingly rely on diving volunteers such as Mrs. Gomez to help perform routine functions, such as feeding and moving aquatic creatures.

“I don’t think we could do half the stuff we do without volunteers,” said Roger Germann, spokesman for the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, which has 160 diving volunteers.

About 11,000 volunteers work at aquariums across the nation, spending more than a million hours in and around the fish tanks each year, said Eric Reinhard of the American Zoo and Aquarium Association. The volunteers help beef up small staffs at almost no cost.

“I don’t think we’d be able to hire enough people to compensate for volunteer hours,” said Melissa Lee, spokeswoman for the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas in New Orleans, where diver volunteers outnumber the whole staff.

But only a few volunteers meet the stringent requirements to climb inside the tanks.

Besides getting diver certification, they must also undergo background checks and medical exams, and they must log dozens of hours doing other volunteer tasks such as preparing food or greeting visitors.

And even though most aquarium creatures are harmless, divers must also undergo rigorous safety training prior to swimming with dangerous species such as hammerhead sharks.

“We kind of owe it to [to the volunteers] not to have them eaten,” said Al Arnold, volunteer manager at the Audubon aquarium, which reopened at the end of May after Hurricane Katrina killed thousands of fish there.

On a recent morning at the Georgia Aquarium. Mrs. Gomez watched three other volunteers as they used a white cloth and a black suction cup to clean windows on the 6.2 million-gallon tank holding 85,000 creatures.

“They’re much bigger in the water than watching them,” said Mrs. Gomez, adding that she never feels threatened in the tank.

There have been no serious incidents involving volunteer divers, Mr. Reinhard said.

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