Audubon aquarium fishing for more volunteers - FOX 8 WVUE New Orleans News, Weather, Sports

Audubon aquarium fishing for more volunteers

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NEW ORLEANS - Without getting wet or holding your breath, you're surrounded by hundreds of gallons of water and vibrant fish in the Caribbean exhibit at the Audubon Nature Institute's Aquarium of the Americas.

Peering through the 4-inch-thick glass into the marvels and beauty of life under water, visitors get a glimpse of this vast world. Suddenly, through a flurry of hungry sting rays, scuba divers emerge to educate and amuse their guests.

"It makes the experience much more, because there's a human in there, as well," said Domonique Backer, a visitor from Hopkinsville, Ky.

That human is a volunteer.

"I'm a med student over at Tulane, and I do this on my off-time," said volunteer diver Matt Skovg.

Skovg feeds the fish and cleans the tank all as a service to the community. The volunteers are repaid by the bright eyes and laughter of those on the outside of the tank.

"They see a diver, and their eyes just gasp and get really excited and come running up to you," said Skovg.

"We enjoy the young ones that come up and get all excited," said diver Tom Moralas, who has volunteered with the aquarium for two decades. "They come up to the window, they want to play patty cake and touch hands and do all kinds of things."

For many kids, it's a new experience to watch people swim with the fish.

"It is the first time that they've seen somebody stay underwater," said Desiree Bell, the dive program coordinator. "I mean, they may have seen somebody in a pool, but they don't know how - hey, somebody's underwater and they can stay down there and they can breathe and they can interact with animals."

The volunteers hope the up-close feedings and educational interactions spark a genuine interest in science and inspire a new generation of scuba divers.

"The older kids it kind of says, ok, this is one of the reasons I want to study science because I get to have something like this to do when I'm older," said Bell.

But not every child who walks through the tank's tunnel will get to see a diver.

"Across the country, zoos and aquariums have seen the volunteer numbers decline," said Tricia LeBlanc, director of education and volunteers.

The dive program at the Audubon Aquarium has half the volunteers it once did.

"Pre-Katrina, we had over 100. I think we had close to 150 volunteer divers. We have not come close to that since Katrina," said Bell.

To attract more volunteers' the aquarium has eased the requirements necessary to jump into some of the tanks.

Helping to clean the shark tank takes more experience, but elsewhere, all you need is a scuba certification.

Divers hope they inspire those looking in at them to learn a little bit more about the marine life that surrounds us all.

"They want to know if they can get into the exhibit, and we always tell them that maybe someday they can," said Moralas.

To sign up to volunteer, click here.

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