Chuck and his wife Ellen began working with the Aquarium’s Animal Rescue team seven years ago. Three years later, their son Tom joined them, and he and Chuck have been assisting with marine mammal transport ever since!
Walt and Connor joined the Aquarium’s volunteer dive program in 2011. They travel all the way from Haymarket, Virginia, to volunteer and together have contributed more than 1,100 volunteer hours!
What’s a typical day like volunteering with the Aquarium?
Chuck/Tom: Typical is not in our vocabulary when it comes to Aquarium activities, and we always expect the unexpected. One day it might be a short drive to the beach to check on an animal that is no longer there or never was there, and the next time it is leaving in the middle of the night with a cargo of turtles heading to Florida to release them. Regardless of the task, the staff at the aquarium has always been available to support us, give guidance and direction and generally make non-typical situations routine.
Walt/Connor: We leave our house around 6 a.m. to arrive at the Aquarium by 8 where we set up our gear and attend an aquarist/dive safety briefing. At 9 a.m. we prep food for the animals and head to the dive locker to don our wetsuits for the first dive in Atlantic Coral Reef at 10 a.m. We feed the animals, clean the exhibit and interact with guests.
After a team lunch, we swap our air tanks and change back into our wetsuits for the next dive in either Atlantic Coral Reef or Blacktip Reef.
During Blacktip Reef dives, we wear a full facemask, specially fitted with underwater communication equipment. One of us is the designated underwater tender while the other talks with an exhibit guide who stands in the underwater viewing area with guests. The guide relays their questions, and we teach them about this amazing exhibit, including the school of sharks swimming around us.
What do you like most about volunteering with your dad/son? How has this experience helped you bond?
Chuck/Tom: We've always had a close relationship and work together within our family business and other volunteer organizations, but it is especially nice that we have the same love for nature (especially the ocean), and we get to work together while helping to protect it.
Walt/Connor: Connor likes spending time underwater experiencing the joy of diving and meeting others who enjoy the underwater world like we do. I enjoy the quality time we spend together. We’re together from 6 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. And on a typical day, except for the commute, that time is spent diving in 76-degree crystal clear water—no rain, no waves or current, and lots of fish. Since we have been diving together, we have enjoyed lots of laughs, lots of conversations and lots of naps in the car (when we’re not the driver).
Do you have a favorite memory from your time volunteering with us?
Chuck/Tom: There are more favorite memories than we can count, but one that is high on the list is a "Turtle Trek" to Florida to release rehabilitated sea turtles. Some people have never seen a live sea turtle, and we've been fortunate enough to personally release more than we remember.
Walt/Connor: Connor’s favorite memory is the first time he got into the former Wings in the Water exhibit, now Blacktip Reef. He really liked being able to interact with Calypso, the turtle, and feeding the various rays and tarpon that inhabited the exhibit.
My favorite moment was when I was helping teach Tang, the humphead wrasse, to be handfed by divers. I was quietly kneeling on the bottom with a piece of mackerel in my hand trying to get him to swim over and eat it. Calypso, our green sea turtle, is quite an opportunistic moocher, so she decided to try and sneak her 500-plus pound body past me and steal the food. I had no idea she was moving in, so there I was kneeling about 14 feet underwater, and all of a sudden a giant shape appeared right above me blocking out the light. It was like that opening scene of the original “Star Wars” where the imperial star destroyer crosses in front of the camera chasing Princess Leia’s ship and blocking all of the sunlight. Needless to say, I figured out what Calypso had planned as she passed six inches in front of my face, so I gave her a light push and a rub on her belly as I laughed clouds of bubbles through my regulator. It was quite memorable!
Is there anything else you want to share about your volunteer experience?
Chuck/Tom: We've both worked with many organizations over the years, and with some you can feel the separation between the administration and the volunteers, but that has never been the case with the National Aquarium. No matter what project we have been involved in, we have always felt like we were integral to the outcome and a valued member of the team. The staff we work directly with are amazing and now feel like members of the family, which is the impression we get of how this organization functions as a whole.
Walt/Connor: One of the main reasons we wanted to dive at the Aquarium as volunteers is the outstanding training the Aquarium gives, both as divers and exhibit guides. Moreover, we get to cement these new skills without having to wait months until our next dive vacation. Since we have been diving at the Aquarium, our skills (especially our buoyancy control) have become outstanding, and we are much safer divers. We can’t say enough good things about the outstanding and professional Aquarium staff and the cadre of volunteers—both exhibit guides and divers—who donate years of their lives to Aquarium animals and guests. We are humbled to be a small part of such an outstanding organization.
*These interviews have been edited for length and clarity.