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The Journal Gazette

  • Rachel Von Stroup | The Journal Gazette Brittney Fleenor, dive safety officer at Fort Wayne Children's Zoo, does an overall scrub in one of the fish tanks in the Australian Adventure on Tuesday. During the dive, she answered visitors' questions.

  • Rachel Von Stroup | The Journal Gazette Dive Safety Officer Brittney Fleenor is lowered into the tank in the Australian Adventure at the Fort Wayne Children's Zoo on Tuesday June 11, 2019.

  • Rachel Von Stroup | The Journal Gazette Dive Safety Officer Brittney Fleenor cleans the glass during an overall scrub and dive chat in the tank in the Australian Adventure at the Fort Wayne Children's Zoo on Tuesday June 11, 2019.

  • Rachel Von Stroup | The Journal Gazette Brittney Fleenor, dive safety officer at Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo, says the fish tanks at the zoo are cleaned weekly.

  • Rachel Von Stroup | The Journal Gazette Dive Safety Officer Brittney Fleenor during the dive chat in the tank in the Australian Adventure at the Fort Wayne Children's Zoo on Tuesday June 11, 2019.

Sunday, June 16, 2019 1:00 am

At zoo, divers swim among the sharks

They also clean tanks and answer visitor questions

ASHLEY SLOBODA | The Journal Gazette

If you go

What: Dive chats at the Fort Wayne Children's Zoo

Where: The aquarium in the Australian Adventure

When: 1:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays

Brittney Fleenor gave the reef tank a quick glance, searching for her favorite fish – the coral cod.

Like other aquatic life in the aquarium at the Fort Wayne Children's Zoo, the red fish with blue spots appeared to be hiding.

That was to be expected. Fleenor, the zoo's dive safety officer, was underwater along with fellow dive team member Jim Pifko for the tank's weekly cleaning, diligently scrubbing algae from the artificial coral and viewing windows.

Many zoo visitors paused to watch the wetsuit-clad duo work in the 17,000-gallon tank, which is nearly split between exhibit and filtration space.

“Do you think that's cool, swimming with a fish?” 11-year-old Judah Connor asked, watching the divers with his family.

The Warsaw boy later wondered whether the divers ever swim among the sharks in the tank across the room.

They do – and it's not always to clean.

The zoo opened this season with two new residents in the shark tank – groupers, a slow-growing fish that can weigh hundreds of pounds and measure 10 feet long from nose to tail.

Like other new zoo animals, groupers Yindi and Miki spent about 30 days in quarantine before entering the shark tank, where Fleenor was waiting to help with the transition.

Divers installed barriers to isolate Yindi and Miki from the sharks – and later from each other – during the adjustment period, Fleenor said. The barriers have since been removed.

Visitors might notice Yindi or Miki peeking out of blue barrels divers tucked behind coral features to mimic spaces the groupers might use in the wild, Fleenor said.

People often ask whether the divers are scared of the sharks, but dive team members said the sharks steer clear of the humans.

“The groupers can be very nosy, though,” said Charmaine Triebnig, who supervised Tuesday's dive from the gallery.

Two others were also involved with the dive – Caitlin Renaud, who watched from an employee area above the tank, and Kierra France, the designated person in charge.

Protocols are in place should a problem arise, Fleenor said, noting the zoo follows the Occupational Safety and Health Administration commercial diving standards.

Most dives are uneventful and end within two hours, Fleenor said.

During Tuesday's dive, Fleenor waved to visitors and held her hands up to those on the other side of the window, sometimes reciprocating fist bumps.

At 1:30 p.m., she stopped cleaning to address the crowd, her voice piped through the building's speakers.

“Hi, everybody. How are you doing today?” Fleenor said before describing her gear and what she was doing.

With Triebnig's help, Fleenor fielded a few questions her prepared speech didn't answer, such as whether fish bite her hair. They don't, said Fleenor, who dives with her locks braided.

asloboda@jg.net