When Chris Bauernfeind joined the New England Aquarium staff in 2005 as a diver in the aquarium’s Giant Ocean Tank, one of the things he most looked forward to about the job was the relative silence and feeling of isolation beneath the water.
Little did Bauernfeind know that the future of tank diving was in being sociable, not solitary.
When the aquarium’s Giant Ocean Tank reopened on July 1, following a 10-month, top-to-bottom $17.3 million renovation that enlarged the tank to 200,000 gallons and doubled the number of fish to 2,000, Bauernfeind learned that he’d need to
start being chatty with visitors. His days of diving in solitude and relishing the silence? Gone.
Aquarium officials had decided to make the diver’s experience interactive, giving Bauernfeind a high-tech face mask that doubled as a camera, setting up a series of video monitors on the walls around the top of the aquarium, so visitors could see the inside of the tank from Bauernfeind’s perspective, and most interactive of all, equipping Bauernfeind’s face
mask with audio equipment so he could chat with visitors and even answer their questions while swimming with the fish, turtles, sharks, and eels.
“This kind of came from the idea that the divers are always seeing this interesting behavior beneath the [surface] and are involved with such neat interactions with the fish, including feeding them up close, that we wanted to give visitors the opportunity to share that experience,” says Billy Spitzer, an aquarium vice president who oversees exhibits. “Plus, even with the talks at the top of the tank, in the past we were limited, because the top of the tank was not accessible to everyone. You could only reach it by stairs. With the renovation, we have an elevator and a ramp, and now the screens. We really can be fully interactive now.”
Bauernfeind understands the push for social interactivity with the Giant Ocean Tank, the aquarium’s centerpiece and by far its most popular attraction. But it was an adjustment.
“It’s funny, but even though I alway knew there were dozens — sometimes hundreds — of people up there watching me, I felt alone because I couldn’t hear them well and wasn’t really looking at them,” he says, chuckling. “Trust me. I did not like the attention, but I could take it.”
The transition for the nearly 45-year-old aquarium has not been entirely smooth. The audio equipment has been a challenge to get working consistently, but the video camera and observation screens have been fully functional for a few weeks now, and visitors seem to love them.
Bella Moore and Stephanie Perez, both 18, were visiting from Salem recently with Moore’s 17-month-old son, Zaell Carerra. The women raved about the camera views.
“You can walk around the lower levels of the tank and see stuff,” Perez said. “But it’s kind of hit or miss. So it’s very cool now to know that you can look at the screens [on the top level] and see exactly what the diver sees.”
“Plus, it kind of makes it more exciting to see the diver swimming in front of, like, a shark, when you’re seeing it from his angle,” Moore added.
Karen Atkins of Ithaca, N.Y., was vacationing in Boston and decided to visit the aquarium after hearing that the divers were giving “insider views” of the tank.
“I’ve been to the National Aquarium in Maryland,” Atkins said. “But this was a totally new experience. It was neat being able to watch the screens around the tank and see exactly what he was seeing and what he was doing.”
Atkins gestured at Bauernfeind while he was diving, and as she smiled, he sprinkled a fish with crushed coral, giving it a sand shower.
“We were concerned at first that people would be so drawn to the screens that they would ignore the tank,” he said. “But we’ve noticed over the past few weeks that hasn’t happened. Instead, they’re doing exactly what we’d hoped: concentrating on the tank with the top-down view, and turning to the screens sometimes for an alternative view.”
As for Bauernfeind, he’s getting used to his new celebrity.
And one of the tools helping him is his blog on the Giant Ocean Tank.
“I realize the diver’s perspective is a unique one,” he said, “and everything I write about it, I’m sure will make it easier to talk about when we have the audio up and running.”
In a recent blog post about small fish adapting to the giant tank, Bauernfeind wrote that the addition of hundreds of new coral formations will help the fish settle in.
“These small species are often territorial, and once they are introduced to the exhibit they will stake out a claim to an area of coral and defend it against intruders,” he wrote.
Bauernfeind, 43, grew up in North Carolina, Maryland, and Kentucky and majored in marine biology at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington, because engineering — his first choice of major — “just wasn’t for me,” he says.
But he’s been diving for only about 12 years.
“I got certified in Hawaii, while I was there visiting my sister,” Bauernfeind says. “And the funny thing is, as much as I love the ocean and its creatures, and so on, I didn’t dive again till 2005 when I moved to Boston. I just spent the rest of that time exploring.”
Indeed there was a five-year layover in Seattle, during which time Bauernfeind worked in a restaurant.
“Pre-Boston, my nature was very much nomadic,” he says.
Here Bauernfeind settled down when he not only found a job at the aquarium, but also met his wife there. He and Emily, who also still works at the aquarium, now have a 2½-year-old daughter and live in Jamaica Plain.
“My favorite people,” Bauernfeind says.
And his favorite fish?
“Probably the black drum. His name is Toronto, because that’s where he came from. He has this little goatee-like pattern on his face. And best of all, he’s shy. So we get each other.”
Bauernfeind had a hand in bringing back some of these fish from the ocean to the new tank. In April 2012 he went on the aquarium’s Bahamas collecting trip to scuba dive and see green sea turtles, trumpetfish, parrotfish, and other marine marvels. The group collected and packed up 300 fish and invertebrates and sent them to Boston, where Bauernfeind now swims with them.
Does he fear the sharks or barracuda since the tank now has two blacknose sharks, one bonnethead shark, and three barracuda? No, he says, as long as they are fed, they are happy. The sharks, he said, are fed five times a week with two days off.
The new coral reef structure in the tank has also been a successful draw for tourists, helping set new attendance records. It’s also attracting the fish.
The biologists are seeing a lot of mating and egg laying so they know the authenticity of the reef is working. But all those nooks and crannies can be challenging for the 6-foot-3 Bauernfeind. He has to watch where he puts his fins so as not to knock or damage the fire corals or sea fans or even scratch the new windows as he swims by.
He jokes, “I have to be very aware of where I am.”James H. Burnett III can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @JamesBurnett.