In my role as Diving Safety Officer, I recently visited Oceanogràfic Aquarium to learn more about the scuba diving operations undertaken at their facility. Many of the duties of Oceanogràfic animal care staff mirror those at the Vancouver Aquarium, but the scale of the operation is vastly larger. Oceanogràfic is five times bigger than the Vancouver Aquarium. The forty or so aquarists, led by curator Mario Roche, are all divers who dive in dozens of exhibits including a kelp forest and several coral reef exhibits. They also dive in the huge seven million litre Oceans exhibit complete with a viewing tunnel — keeping it clean and hand-feeding many of the rays and related elasmobranchs (sharks, rays and skates).
Another team composed of three divers (currently with ranks bolstered by two trainee divers) is tasked with cleaning the enormous 29 million litre, 11 metre deep dolphinarium. The dive team is also responsible for cleaning the penguin habitat and all of the marine mammal exhibits including beluga, walrus and sea lion habitats. Lead diver Christopher Saez told me his team dives seven days a week and spend eight hours a day scouring exhibits with hydraulic scrubbers, vacuum hoses and by hand.
Divers at Oceanogràfic also collect specimens in the nearby Mediterranean Sea. They conduct visitor immersion dives where guests pay to dive in the aquarium’s exhibits, as part of the Dive with Sharks program and occasionally assist with scientific research undertaken by other aquarium departments. They have plenty of space for their diving support facilities.
The behind-the-scenes at Oceanogràfic is huge — there are hallways so long and wide a truck can drive down them. Unfortunately for the divers that clean the marine mammal exhibits, the scuba air compressor is located on a lower level almost directly below the dolphinarium and the only access is via a wide ramp at the opposite end of the grounds. They need to cart the empty scuba cylinders across the length of the aquarium, go down the ramp, then wheel them back the whole length to the compressor room – one floor down. They get lots of exercise.
The folks I met at Oceanogràfic, and in Valencia in general, were friendly and welcoming. The city is a wonder of history and architecture, and the aquarium is, in my estimation, well on its way to becoming one of the world’s best. If you are in the neighbourhood, stop by and say Hola!
Brief history of Valencia
Valencia, Spain is a mix of the very old and the very new and is Spain’s third largest city. The now dry bed of the river Turia cuts through the middle of Valencia. The Turia, with its headwaters in the mountains 280 km northwest of the city, catastrophically flooded Valencia in 1957 causing grievous loss of life and property. To prevent such a disaster from recurring, the Spanish government diverted the river around the south side of the city, and turned the river bed into a lovely sunken park and green space.
In the park, near the terminal end of what was once the Turia, sits Oceanogràfic, Europe’s largest Aquarium. In contrast to the medieval aspect of central Valencia, Oceanogràfic is part of the hyper-modern City of Arts and Sciences. This complex of wildly space-age structures was built in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and includes (among other things) a planetarium, opera house, natural history museum, performance space, covered garden and aquarium.
By Jeremy Heywood, Vancouver Aquarium diving safety officer.
The Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre is currently supporting the staff of Oceanografic Aquarium, Europe’s largest aquarium in Valencia, Spain, as they expand their conservation and education efforts. Jeremy Heywood, Vancouver Aquarium diving safety officer travelled to Valencia to observe Oceanografic’s diving operations. During his stay he also learned about the fascinating architecture and history of the city.