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'A different world': At the Greensboro Science Center, a lucky few get to experience life inside the tanks

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science center diver.jpg

A young visitor enjoys interacting with a diver during the aquarium’s shark reef dive at the Greensboro Science Center.

GREENSBORO — When Nicole Wiegand descends into the Shark Reef tank at the Greensboro Science Center, the first thing she feels is the cold.

The 72-degree water — Wiegand says that’s more chilly than it sounds — hits her feet and trickles up her wetsuit.

It jolts her.

“Better than a cup of coffee in the morning,” Wiegand said.

As the dive safety officer at the Science Center, Wiegand rarely goes a week without getting into at least one of the “systems” — that’s Science Center lingo for fish tanks and animal exhibits. There’s 16 systems with active dive plans, but anytime someone may need to submerge their head in water, that counts as a dive.

Each time, she said, it’s a surreal experience — the closest you can get to being on an alien planet.

“It’s a different world for us. I absolutely love it.”

She isn’t the only one.

The divers Science Center visitors see behind the glass, just inches away from sharks and stingrays, are often volunteers.

“All of our aquarists here are also divers, but we have 12 volunteer divers,” Wiegand said.

Those volunteers go through an extensive process to be able to assist in cleaning and caring for the Science Center’s exhibits and animals. Not only do they have to be open-water scuba certified, volunteers also have to pass a “very arduous” swim test, Wiegand said. From there, the next step is a detailed physical that includes chest X-rays and EKG tests.

It’s only once they’ve passed the physical requirements that they’re able to move onto classroom training.

“The process start to finish usually takes a couple of months to get through before they can actually come in and dive in one of our systems,” Wiegand said.

But once they finish, volunteers are given a glimpse into a world they wouldn’t find if they were in the ocean.

“I’m never going to do a dive and see two sandbar sharks, a black nose shark, southern stingray, an eagle ray, a puffer fish — all within one little view of my mask,” Wiegand said.

Wiegand thinks that unique opportunity is what attracts volunteers. She believes many want to give back to the Science Center, which has given so much to the community.

The up close interaction with the marine life is a huge bonus, she admits. It’s her favorite part of being the Science Center’s dive safety officer.

Stemming from a love of the “underwater world,” Wiegand said she could swim before she could walk.

“I started diving as a teenager and just said, ‘This is it. This is what I want to do.’”

She’s been a dive professional since 2000, and joined the Greensboro Science Center last year.

Wiegand said the “short version” of her job description is “overseeing the dive program.” That includes, though, a long list of responsibilities, such as adhering to state and federal work safety standards as well as those set by the Association of Zoos & Aquariums. Also, there is a lot more paperwork and sitting behind a desk than one might expect, Wiegand added.

Taking care of a single Science Center system usually takes up to an hour with multiple volunteers or aquarists assisting. They scrub the décor, remove algae and do animal wellness checks. Every system’s a little different, Wiegand said. Each has their own set of challenges.

For example, “(the penguins) want to steal your shoelaces,” Wiegand said. “They want to steal keys. Anything they can get ahold of.”

But whether divers are cleaning windows in the penguins’ habitat or coming face-to-face with sharks, it’s important to remember one rule:

“We keep our hands to ourselves,” Wiegand said. “We are entering their world. We are a guest in their home.”

Sometimes, the animals might not be interested in having the divers in their space. If they appear agitated and Wiegand gets the sense they’d rather be left alone, that’s fine. There’s always another day.

Wiegand said she doesn’t have any stories involving shark bites or other close calls. But there’s a handful of animals who like to cause trouble, like the angel fish in Shark Reef that tugs at Wiegand’s hair and the puffer fish who likes to steal tools from divers.

What’s most “surprising” to Wiegand is how accustomed the animals are to the divers.

“Having the sharks cruise by you within like 6 inches — you see them. Their eyes looking right at you. It’s absolutely amazing to be able to be that close to everything.”

Being so close to a shark is enough to make some people nervous, but Wiegand said it’s never made her feel uneasy. Instead, she’s just in awe — in awe of the animals’ beauty and to be in their presence.

“Not many of us get a chance to do that,” Wiegand said. “I feel very honored that they let me into their home.”

Contact Jamie Biggs at 336-373-4476 and follow @JamieBiggsNR on Twitter.

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