...what it's like to dive in the kelp tank?

An Ever Wonder? podcast from the California Science Center

Wearing a wetsuit with her hair pulled back as she stands in the California Science Center's dive locker, Erin Shusterman holds her coffee mug in a gesture that seems to say "cheers"!

Before diving in the kelp tank's 56-degree water, Erin Shusterman warms up with some coffee in the California Science Center’s dive locker.

No visit to the California Science Center is complete without a stop at our Kelp Forest. This exhibit showcases the spectacular diversity of life that coexists off the coast of Southern California. As you peer into the tank you might spot a leopard shark, get a glimpse of a moray eel, or exchange glances with a giant sea bass. If you're especially lucky you might even see… a diver?

Divers regularly swim in the kelp tank to feed and take care of all of the creatures that live there. Do you ever wonder what it's like to be a diver in the kelp tank?

Erin Shusterman leads the team who takes care of everything that lives in water at the Science Center. She tells us what it's like to dive in the kelp tank and what goes into taking care of all the aquatic animals you might see when you visit.

Have a question you've been wondering about? Send an email to tell us what you'd like to hear in future episodes.

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Perry Roth-Johnson: 00:06 

Hello! This is Ever Wonder? from the California Science Center. I'm Perry Roth-Johnson. No visit to the Science Center is complete without a stop at our kelp forest. This exhibit showcases the spectacular diversity of life that coexists off the coast of Southern California. As you peer into the tank, you might spot a leopard shark, get a glimpse of a moray eel, or exchange glances with a giant sea bass. If you're especially lucky, you might even see... a diver? Divers regularly swim in the kelp tank to feed and take care of all the creatures that live there. Do you ever wonder what it's like to be a diver in the kelp tank? Erin Shusterman leads the team who takes care of everything that lives in the water at the Science Center. I've invited her to the show to learn more about what it's like to dive in the kelp tank and what goes into taking care of all the aquatic animals you might see when you visit. So Erin, you are the husbandry manager leading the team that cares for all our aquatic animals at the Science Center. Welcome to the show!

Erin Shusterman: 01:08 

Thank you for having me. I'm really excited to be here.

Perry Roth-Johnson: 01:10

Absolutely. Uh, when you tell people that you're an aquarist or that you lead a team of aquarists, what kind of things do they say or think about? Do they have any misconceptions or funny stories?

Erin Shusterman: 01:21 

Yeah, absolutely. I think one of the biggest, um, things that... People don't know what that is. When I say like, I used to be an aquarist or I manage a team of aquarists, they have no idea what that is. And I've gotten on multiple occasions where they're like, no, no, no, no, like I'm a Libra, but no, what do you do? And I'm like, I'm like, no, no, no, wait, I'm not an Aquarius. I'm, I'm an aquarist. And I have to explain that basically, an aquarist is someone who takes care of animals that live in water. So I'm out here on the West Coast and at the Science Center, we have a large collection of temperate, coastal fish, and invertebrates, and even some sharks and rays. Um, and so as aquarists, we take care of those animals because they live in water.

Perry Roth-Johnson: 02:04 

Like when you tell people what you do and you get past the horoscope question that you're not a Libra or an Aquarius that you're in aquarist. What are some of the things you're doing that even people who might know what aquarists do are kind of surprised like, "Oh, you do that? Like, I didn't think about that!"

Erin Shusterman: 02:21

Yeah. Um, I think one of the things that people are often surprised by is that, well, one—that we do training with fish. Oftentimes, I think people think of fish as just this like dumb being that just swims through the ocean. And you know, how exciting is that? Um, when in fact some species are very intelligent and can learn, which I think a lot of people are often surprised by. So when we say, you know, we've done this really great training thing with this one animal, they're like, "What? Why, what do you mean?" You know? Um, so I think that's something that people are often surprised by. Also, I think people are surprised by the fact that our fish, um, have exams with a veterinarian. You know, often here again. Yeah. Often here, again, people I think, um, might think of their home aquariums or, or, um, just like going fishing or things like that, where it's kind of like, "Meh." Like, why would you take them to the vet? But in all reality, they can get diseases just like other animals. They can get parasites just like other animals. You know, they need, um, checkups basically like you were, I go to the doctor once a year to get checkup, to make sure we're okay. These animals also do the same. And I think often people are really, really surprised by that.

Perry Roth-Johnson: 03:41

Got it. Um, and so tell me a little bit more about the team you work with at the Science Center. Um, like, are you guys always in water, are you all scuba divers? Uh, are there big tanks and small tanks? Tell me, walk me through your day in the life.

Erin Shusterman: 03:57

Yeah. We are very fortunate to have a good mix of both. So we do have large tanks and small tanks. Um, yes, we are all certified scuba divers. We have to be at least at the rescue level, um, certification in order to dive at the Science Center. There are several of us that also are, um, AAUS certified, which is a scientific, um, certification for scuba diving as well. Day to day, usually we're in the water. We have somebody in the water. It may not be the same person every day, but for at least an hour, if not two, depending on what tanks they have, where they need to be. But we, yes, we have to scuba dive in order to access, um, probably at this point over maybe a quarter of our collection or so is in deeper water tanks that we have to get in to feed.

Erin Shusterman: 04:44 

Um, we don't just throw food in the water and let them all figure it out. Cause we'd have really, really fat fish and really, really skinny fish as they try and compete for the food. So we have to scuba dive in there to go ahead and target, um, most of the fish that are in those larger exhibits. And then also we have smaller tanks. So a part of our responsibility is cleaning out those smaller tanks as well, making sure those animals get fed properly. Um, those ones are smaller. So for our guests, they're easier to see up close, which means we have to be really good about taking all the algae off the acrylic or, or things like that. So that, um, everybody gets a nice, clear, pretty picture of the environment we're trying to create.

Perry Roth-Johnson: 05:26 

I mean, just to me personally, like I've never been scuba diving, it seems kind of intense. How did you get into it? And, and, and like, if other people are interested, how can they start scuba diving?

Erin Shusterman: 05:37 

Yeah. Um, I kind of got into it on accident to be really honest. Um, I was back in college and, um, getting ready to graduate and a few friends of mine—I was a marine biology major—um, and a few friends of mine who were also marine biology majors wanted to take a trip for graduation trip. And so we went to the Galapagos and we're like, well, if we go, we have to scuba dive all we're there. Like there's just too much, too many wonderful things to see underwater over there.

Perry Roth-Johnson: 06:07 

And the Galapagos are those islands that, uh, Darwin studied, trying figure out the theory of evolution right?

Erin Shusterman: 06:14


Perry Roth-Johnson: 06:14 

Okay, so cool, iconic place. You have to go scuba diving.

Erin Shusterman: 06:17 

Yeah. I mean, you just, you have to like if we went and came back, that would just be embarrassing to say we didn't. Um, so we all got scuba—we got, um, open water certified together. And that's like the basic first step. Um, and that was when I was graduating college. So like I knew I wanted to do something related to the ocean for a career, but I really didn't know entirely what. Um, and luckily for me, I really loved scuba diving and it helped obviously with the field that I ended up in. Um, because it is a requirement at most aquariums that, um, you know, people are able to scuba dive as well as take care of animals. So, um, as far as how people can get involved, they can call their local dive shop or a larger, um, like sports equipment chains usually have, um, programs as well. Um, it takes a couple of weekends for the first initial certification and then, and then that's really it. And then after that, it is a sport that people kind of have to maintain on their own. And, uh, but it's, it's a really wonderful world that, you know, it's, um, very, in my case, at least it's very like therapeutic and once I get underwater, it's kind of like just amazing to me. I feel like every dive I go on, I see things that I've never seen before, which is awesome.

Perry Roth-Johnson: 07:37 

Thanks—you sent me a perfectly, it's a great segue. I want to talk a little bit about our most iconic, uh, exhibit in Ecosystems, if not the whole Science Center, uh, the kelp tank. Um, it's this really big tank, like you were saying earlier, the divers need to go down and make sure the fish at the bottom are getting fed just like the fish at the top. Uh, if guests have come and visited us, they might've seen you or one of your teammates in the dive show, uh, explaining what's going on. Uh, what's it like to be a diver in that kelp tank?

Erin Shusterman: 08:09 

Yeah, it's pretty awesome. Um, I have to say one of the things that's really, I think I personally think the best, um, about it is even scuba divers who have dove all over the world, volunteer for us and are amazed at how, um, how much diversity we're able to have in that tank. And they, they say it all the time that to just be able to walk right into a tank like that and see all of these different animals is awesome. Um, so I think that's one of the things that I personally really take pride in. I think that it makes it beautiful, but as far as being in it, what we tell guests who have been to the Science Center before is it's very cold! The temperature is the same temperature as the touch tank. So if they've been to our touch tank exhibit and actually put their hands in the water, imagine that being all over your entire body, it does get chilly.

Erin Shusterman: 09:03 

We are in seven mil wetsuits that protect us and do help us to, to thermoregulate a little bit better. But it depends on what you're doing during a dive. If you're swimming around—and, you know, we do have to get into an, you know, catch some animals that might be injured or sick. If we have to go in to get them, to bring them up to our vet for medical treatment, um, you're moving around a lot. So you may not get as cold, but if you're doing a feed where you're maybe just kneeling on the bottom, waiting patiently, ever so patiently for an eel to eat, or something that maybe just isn't super hungry and doesn't want to eat right then and there, you're going to get a little bit colder. And so I think that's one of the, the first things that kind of comes to mind about diving in that tank. Um, also it's just really fun because you get to see all the guests walking through the tunnel or the front window and, you know, it's great. You get to high five kids and you get to play rock paper scissor with, you know, with other like a little bit older kids. And it's a really cool experience, um, to be able to have that perspective from.

Perry Roth-Johnson: 10:05 

Switching gears a little bit. Do you have any memorable stories about an animal, like one that was a challenge on the flip side, like a joy to work with?

Erin Shusterman: 10:13

Yeah. Um, I think one that sort of always comes to mind is we, we used to have, um, three cabezon, which, um, uh, cabezon, it can get very large, it can get to be pretty sizable. The ones we had were only maybe like six, seven inches, something like that. They were young juveniles. Um, but, um, one of the things that we always sort of struggle with, well that any aquarium struggles with, is creating an environment that the animal feels safe and comfortable in, and it isn't stressed out in. But also balancing that with guests, being able to see them and, and get the full experience of, of, you know, conveying all kinds of critters from the ocean to our guests. So with this particular animal, we struggled with that because it wanted to kind of stay a little more hidden and in darker places, which obviously guests couldn't see.

Erin Shusterman: 11:08

And so we, we did, we built multiple different types of hides for this animal to be able to, um, feel secure in, but also sort of allow guests to see it. And sort of accidentally really, we were trying to work with that animal and trying to get it to move. Um, like by feeding a little bit farther outside of its we called it a den, but outside of it, stand a little, a little farther, a little farther kind of a thing. And it ended up swimming into one of the aquarists' hands. Um, and, and we thought, wow, that would be awesome. A really great guest experience as well as, um, if the animal feels comfortable enough to do that then we've done a really good job. And, um, and so we ended up continuing that training. We continue the training where it would receive, um, we've put a gloved hand into the water and it knew that that meant that that was where it was going to get fed.

Erin Shusterman: 12:07 

So it would literally just swim there, perks right there, get its little pieces of food and then it would swim right back down. But the added benefit of it, was not only did the animal come out and it was a great guest experience to see that animal eat. But it also allowed that animal to feel more comfortable just to be out of its den more often. And we found that after that had happened and we continued that training, it would be out just on its own, just like hanging out, which was then also obviously a great sign for its comfort level, as well as the guests got to see it more, which is great. So that's kind of one of my favorites.

Perry Roth-Johnson: 12:40 

So like sometimes you have the struggle of trying to not only make sure the animal has good care, but make sure the guests can, can see some cool animal behaviors and you were able to creatively make sure those things weren't mutually exclusive, but they reinforce each other. Well, Erin, thanks for, uh, giving our listeners a little bit of a peek behind the scenes about what you and your team are doing, all the great work you're you're you're doing and making sure our animals are healthy. The ones that are in water, not the ones that are on land and giving us some sense of like what it's like to be in the water with them as a scuba diver. Uh, I know a lot of kids are, are asking you those questions and I know a lot of adults are interested in it too. So thanks for your time, Erin.

Erin Shusterman: 13:22 

Yeah. Thanks for having me. I appreciate it.

Perry Roth-Johnson: 13:26

Well, that's our show and thanks for listening. Until next time, keep wondering. Ever Wonder? from the California Science Center is produced by me, Perry Roth-Johnson along with Jennifer Castillo. Liz Roth-Johnson is our editor. Theme music provided by Michael Nickolas and Pond5. We'll drop new episodes every other Wednesday. If you're a fan of the show, be sure to subscribe and leave us a rating or review, or tell a friend about us. Now our doors may be closed, but our mission to inspire science learning in everyone continues! We're working hard to provide free educational resources online while maintaining essential operations like on-site animal care and preparing for our reopening to the public. Join our mission by making a gift at californiasciencecenter.org/support.