July 6, 2012
Young scuba divers, each accompanied by two or three wetsuit-clad volunteers, fill the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Great Tide Pool on Friday, July 6. From the observation deck, the groups of children—about 30 are projected to participate throughout the day—and divers look peaceful, with little splashing and the occasional triumphant yell: “I saw a starfish!” Most of the kids have never been in the ocean before. In the 90-minute dive period, they overcome fears of the unknown—open water, strangers—and place complete trust in their new dive buddies.
Nancy Hill, whose son David has cerebral palsy and is participating for the first time, explains that the event is successful because the volunteers “tailor it to each kid.” The children dictate the pace of their underwater exploration: they can choose to remain on the rocks, submerge partially with a boogie board, or suit-up in scuba gear complete with tank and regulator and come face to face with the marine life—all while safely in the arms of their dive buddies, who are endlessly patient. Before dry-suits are donned and flippers are fitted, the volunteers foreshadow what the kids will experience and empathize with their fears. But Hill knows that sometimes talking isn’t enough for her son, and praises his guides for gently pushing him “past the fear threshold” and getting him to “just do it.”
The Underwater Explorers is made possible by a grant from the Salinas Valley Memorial Healthcare System’s Children’s Miracle Network; the Aquarium provides free access to the program and the exhibits for the young people and their chaperones. Marv Tuttle, the director of the event, recruits the participants and helps the divers understand the physical and mental needs of the children. Although several months of planning, fundraising and countless volunteer hours go into the event, allowing the kids to connect to the ocean is worth it. “It’s a very selfish thing for me. I get more out it than my kids do,” Tuttle says.
The volunteers echo Tuttle’s sentiments. Caleb Schneider, one of the divers who accompanied David Hill says, “We work for smiles.” His dive partner Jeff Vezzolo agrees: “This is the best dive day of the year.”