Volunteers give and receive a lot
Visitors to the Aquarium of the Pacific have probably met Miller.
He’s a blubbery sea lion whose best years are behind him -- alas, his eyesight is failing and he can no longer perform handstands -- but he’s a lovable old salt and children adore him.
Visitors may also have seen Hugh Ryono, a volunteer trainer who, like Miller, has been a fixture at the Long Beach facility since it opened in 1998.
Ryono and Miller are tight. Their relationship dates to the mid-1990s, when the distinguished pinniped, then a charismatic star at Knott’s Berry Farm, would kiss willing tourists.
Ryono still has the photo of a whiskered Miller smacking his right cheek and says it’s pure coincidence that the two were reunited.
“So how ironic is that?” he says, after slipping Miller a herring. “I’m still working with the animal that gave me a kiss so long ago in Orange County. That’s pretty cool. You can’t get any cooler than that.”
So it goes on a quiet morning at the tranquil marine complex. Sharks prowl. Otters play. Fish school. Wide-eyed children watch and wonder.
And people such as Ryono give freely of their time.
The facility is crawling with amiable volunteers. There are more than 600 of them, versus only 200 paid staffers.
They work in the gift shop. They arrive at dawn to hand-prepare meals of squid, shrimp, clams and fish. They don scuba gear and scrub algae from the darkest recesses of vast exhibits.
“The aquarium would be nothing without its volunteers,” concedes Sean Devereaux, manager of volunteer services, adding almost anyone can apply. “We ask for between four to eight hours a week but we’ve found that it’s a very addictive place to be, and typically they spend significantly more time here than that.”
This speaks volumes about the allure of the undersea universe. No regular business could operate in this manner, which is too bad because it would provide a tremendous boost to the all-important bottom line.
But in no other businesses are workers immersed in such a serene and wondrous environment, being with people of like minds and attaining enrichment, if not financial reward.
“After visiting with my niece a couple of years ago I’d close my eyes and see fish floating around inside my head, so it’s like, ‘OK, I’m hooked anyway; let’s check this out,’ “recalls Josie Cabiglio, a former teacher and newspaper reporter.
Cabiglio is now a day captain in the education department and spends about 15 hours a week planning schedules and staffing exhibits as an interpreter.
“We’re just like staff,” she adds. “There is no hierarchy here. I don’t feel any different than any paid staff.”
Dirk Burcham sees fish floating around outside his head: He’s one of 160 volunteer divers who collectively conduct 12,000 dives per year.
He spent much of the morning tethered to a yellow rope inside the Tropical Reef exhibit, surrounded by turtles, sharks, rays, groupers and many of the colorful fish you’d find if you were visiting Palau, one of the world’s top scuba-diving destinations.
A blackish-brown panther grouper perched almost parrot-like on his left shoulder and two large rays caressed his body as he faced the audience and answered questions posed on the outside by Jane Nguyen, a former volunteer now on staff.
Burcham says this enables him to make close contact with creatures that are far more elusive in the wild but also to “have a sense of giving back to the community.”
What he enjoys most, though, is watching the reaction of children through the glass.
“Once there was a young boy in a wheelchair and I waved to him and, man, he just lit up like a candle,” says Burcham, a project manager for the California Coastkeeper Alliance. “It was just the simple act of my acknowledging him, and being a father myself I can understand the effect that can have on a child.”
Volunteers range from students to retirees. One is a rocket scientist. There are dive-shop owners, engineers, doctors and lawyers.
“They come from all walks of life and they keep this place running,” says Paul Dimeo, the diving safety officer.
Ryono is a technical trainer for Fuji film and resides in Fullerton. He has donated countless hours toward a seasonal gray whale sense project, and helps nurture injured seals and sea lions at the Marine Mammal Care Center in San Pedro.
He has logged 4,000 hours at the aquarium and is among volunteers blogging on its website about work behind the scenes.
One such blog involves Ellie, the harbor seal who, like Miller, is nearly blind due to old age.
Trainers stopped tossing Ellie items to retrieve five years ago. But recently, when Ryono accidentally dropped a pole into the water, the seal dived and brought it back to him.
It turns out she can find objects based on splashes and vibrations, so she has resumed performing and is again a star.
“It just goes to show that you should never underestimate anyone’s abilities just because they have a perceived disability,” Ryono says. “Animals, just like people, are quite adaptable if given the chance.”