Bridging the Gap: Hooking the Next Generation

Immediately after they break the surface, my two young guests burst into excited chittering. “Did you see that eel come up? It was huge! Those lobsters look even bigger underwater! Dad, we have to get certified; that was amazing.” It was the kind of excitement you would expect after two teenage girls breathe underwater, get swarmed by a tornado of several hundred fish, and hand-feed sharks. Sitting at the surface of the water and reflecting on their dive in our 760,000-liter (200,000-gallon) Coral Reef tank, Ashley and Kaley tell me that their favorite part of the experience was “all of it!”

© Aquarium Encounters Alicia with Sandbar

I love my job as a NAUI dive professional (who doesn’t like getting paid to scuba dive?), but experiences like this are my absolute favorite. At Florida Keys Aquarium Encounters, I have the opportunity to immerse the general public in our flagship exhibit for 25 to 30 minutes, giving them firsthand experience with over 1,500 animals native to our Florida waters. With our NAUI-approved Aquarium Encounters Tank Certification, I get to bridge the gap between non-divers and the ocean in a way that a lot of dive professionals don’t get to — with an experience-packed dive that requires no boat trip, no equipment costs and only 90 minutes of our guests’ time.

Our whole aquarium is based on the idea that a hands-on encounter with our animals creates an experience that will far outlast simply looking through the glass. When you include diving in that experience, though, something magical happens Guests who would have never taken the plunge, fall in love with the world of diving. Through our in-water programs, we open the diving world to a whole new generation.

The girls climb out of the tank with their eyes glued to the crystal water, a nearly endless stream of questions flowing from their mouths now that their regulators are no longer in the way. The questions and general excitement continue as they doff their wetsuits and head for the showers, replaying again between themselves the highlights of their dive. “Those two were naturals underwater,” I remark to their parents. “They’ll make great scuba divers one day.” As I begin to clear away the equipment from our encounter, the parents and I chat about the experience that Ashley and Kaley just had. They ask me if I have any recommendations for getting them certified, and I’m quick to mention that this summer we’re offering a youth camp that includes a NAUI Scuba Diver or Junior Scuba Diver certification here at our aquarium.

© Aquarium Encounters Eagle Ray DivingThis camp is our next step in bridging the gap. It provides students ages 10 through 17 with a half-week-long day camp that includes dives in our coral reef tank, our open-water lagoon and, of course, a half-day out on the third-largest barrier reef system in the world. As aquarists, marine biologists and dive professionals, we all have a strong passion for our ocean and the wildlife that calls it home. We all want to ensure that the next generation shares that same passion and takes steps to conserve the largest and most diverse ecosystem on our planet. What better way to hook future divers than to equip them with a certification that allows them to explore the ocean we love and with experiences that give them a taste of how magnificent the ocean can be? The Senegalese conservationist Baba Dioum famously said, “In the end, we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand, and we will understand only what we have been taught.” Here at Florida Keys Aquarium Encounters, we believe that teaching through experience is the fastest and most powerful way to have our guests fall in love with the ocean.

To plan a trip to Florida Keys Aquarium Encounters, visit To find out more about summer day camps, go to For more information, please contact Dolores Smith, Marketing Coordinator, at 305-407-3262, ext. 2, or at