Scientific divers help care for zoo animals and habitats.
On a cool July morning, in a building tucked behind the zoo’s marine life habitats, dive safety officer Micah Reese sits in a room filled floor to ceiling with parts and equipment. He’s preparing to lead a team of volunteers through the safety drills and go over the day’s assignments. Today, expert scuba divers will clean the zoo’s sea otter area and holding pools — collecting enrichment toys, removing shells, and scrubbing algae from the walls with a hydraulic brush.
The quiet hum of the filtration system plays counterpoint to the ever-present sound of running water. One by one, the volunteers arrive, lugging enormous gear bags. Reese is affable, greeting everyone with a joke and a warm welcome. The close relationships are evident — people who dive together are responsible for one another in ways that build trust.
Volunteers make a difference for the animals.
To serve on the team, divers must provide and maintain their own equipment. The zoo supplies scuba tanks, weights and Reese’s expert leadership.
“Micah has done a phenomenal job cultivating this dive program and keeping everyone safe,” said Amy Hash, who oversees the zoo’s marine life team.
The marine life care staff are trained as well, maintaining their certification with monthly dives.
“Regular diving allows them to participate in setting up enrichment activities,” Reese explains. “It gives them a chance to practice their skills and experience the animals’ habitats up close.”
“There is no better time to do health checks on our fish and anemones than when we’re diving in the kelp habitat,” Hash said. “And we’re currently working on underwater training with our harbor seals, which is enriching for both the animals and staff.”
Kayla Boys, a volunteer for four years, was recently hired as the zoo’s assistant dive safety officer. She’ll help Reese strengthen and expand the program, which he hopes will include education and mentoring in the future.
A matching gift makes an impact.
A recent gift to the Oregon Zoo Foundation represents a big step toward that goal, offering opportunities for some unique interactions at the zoo. Volunteer diver and zoo member David Steinberg made a gift that is helping the zoo acquire a communication system that lets divers speak to each other underwater and to guests on the other side of the glass. Steinberg’s gift included a match from his former employer, IBM, doubling his impact.
“I really wanted a means of public interaction and to educate visitors about our animals, animal behavior and ocean conservation,” Steinberg said. “Having education delivered this way serves as bait, because a diver underwater creates a fascination for young people.”
“When I look out and see kids waving,” Reese adds, “it reminds me of why I was inspired to pursue this work.”
He’s excited because he believes when people see divers at work with the animals, they could be inspired to say, “I want to do that.”
With his help, they might also be saying, “I can do that.”