By Chase Berenson
The last time you visited an aquarium, did you wonder how the employees cleaned the inside windows on the giant glass tanks? Did you ask yourself how they fed the animals, or how they retrieved an animal when moving it from tank to tank?
Maybe you just wanted to hop into the tank without doing any work. Now you can!
The Audubon Aquarium of the Americas in New Orleans has opened one of its largest exhibits to SCUBA divers who want to jump in and spend some time under the water with schools of friendly fish.
The Maya Dive Experience takes place in the aquarium’s Great Maya Reef exhibit, which has been designed to simulate a coral reef found off the coast of Belize and Mexico. The exhibit has an incredibly high density of sea life, and the 132,000-gallon tank is filled with over 1,000 different animals.
The animals in the Maya Reef are very tolerant of divers, and are used to divers delivering their food. Schools of yellowtail snapper surround divers in the wide-open areas of the exhibit, while spiny-tailed lobsters are hiding in the crevices of the reef.
The angelfish have personality, and one in particular even pokes your mask and plays in your exhaled bubbles. The exhibit’s cow-nose stingrays, on the other hand, are more single-minded in their swimming, and they won’t hesitate to rub up beside you or gently push your legs out of the way.
In addition to the multitudes of underwater life, diving on the reef is unique because of the dry land-based distractions. It’s easy to forget that the vast majority of aquarium visitors are looking at animals from the other side of the glass, until you notice the crowd watching you dive.
The Maya Reef has multiple windows and a 30-foot walk-through tunnel that allows visitors to see the animals swimming on both sides and above them. You think you are the one having all the fun, but when you see the children’s eyes light up as you wave to them you will realize that humans are also an important part of the exhibit.
Unlike some SCUBA programs at other aquariums, at the Great Maya Reef divers are free to explore the entire exhibit. At the beginning divers follow the instructor around to discover the tank and use the instructor’s experienced eyes to pick out some of the more elusive creatures. After a once-around, divers are free to head to any corner, interact with any animals, and swim through the coral reef wherever they’d like.
Diving at the aquarium is safe, easy and accessible to all levels of divers. There are only two divers and an instructor in the tank at any one time. Because the dives are in a controlled environment, it means that there are no surface conditions or underwater current to battle. In the unlikely event that something goes wrong, it’s possible to make it back to the surface with one breath of air and there is no need for a safety stop.
Even though aquarium diving is a good activity for beginner divers, experienced divers should also add the Maya Dive Experience to their to-do list. Aquarium diving is a unique experience, especially in an exhibit like this one. (Plus, how often do pre-dive briefings include what to do if there’s a fire alarm during the dive?)
The Great Maya Reef is also the only place in the world where you can finish off your SCUBA dive by wandering into the French Quarter for a celebratory drink!