Guest Post: Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Day of Discovery

Thank you to to our guest blogger and long time supporter George Peterson for sharing his love for this special program and the children that participate. 

What’s the best day of the year for the Aquarium’s dive team? For 15 years it’s been “Zack Bunnell’s Day of Discovery” – a day that gives young people with disabilities the chance to experience the freedom and wonders of the ocean during a surface scuba experience.

The ocean is the soup of life. It provides us with oxygen, the very essence of life. It controls not only our weather but our very future on this planet. It also has the power to free people from the confines of wheelchairs and gravity. On a July day in 2002, children usually bound to wheelchairs were able to connect with the ocean in a whole new way.

In a joint project between the National Instructors Association of Divers with Disabilities (NIADD), Oceanic and Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Dive Office, 20 children were helped into wetsuits and scuba gear, complete with a tank and regulator. Each child was breathing through a regulator, face in the water, exploring the ocean for animals and – most importantly – being a kid without a disability for more than 30- minutes in the Aquarium’s Great Tide Pool. That summer day these most-special kids were equals with everyone else who was in the water and most certainly shared with their dive buddies a newfound appreciation for the wonders of the sea. They simply had a fantastic time during the inaugural “Day of Discovery for Kids with Exceptional Challenges.”

The excitement was not limited to the participants alone. All the volunteer divers who helped, the staff that gave up a Sunday morning at home to serve hot chocolate, and even the media that came out to cover the story became wrapped up in the excitement. As each child came out of the water smiling and full of stories, the tears started flowing all around. Everyone in attendance knew that they wanted to be there the next time the program was offered.

The kids wanted something else that July day. They wanted us, the “able bodies” or TAB’s, (Temporarily Able Bodies) to know them better. They wanted us to know that they could do things, lots of things, so no one should ever count them out. That message was received loud and clear and they definitely opened minds and hearts that day.

That first “Day of Discovery for Kids with Exceptional Challenges” evolved into the Underwater Explorers  program at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. The Aquarium purchased state-of-the-art equipment to outfit children (abled and disabled) for a surface scuba experience in the chilly, 50-degree waters of our Great Tide Pool.  The summer dive program, for children ages 8 – 13, began in 2003 and has served almost 30,000 children, including over 1,000 with disabilities, to date.

In 2004, a courageous young boy by the name of Zach Bunnell joined us for a dive. Zach had an amazing day and touched many lives. He was too young for the program a year earlier after he first saw the kids in action, but focused on coming back to the Aquarium to dive the following year. In the intervening year Zach was blinded by a brain tumor, but that didn’t stop him from pursuing his dream dive and showing us all how to live life to the fullest. He died only a few months after fulfilling his dream.

After Zach’s passing it was evident that this special experience for kids with disabilities would, in his honor, become “The Zach Bunnell Day of Discovery for Kids with Exceptional Challenges.”  The magical day is in honor of 10-year-old Zach Bunnell, who fulfilled his wish to participate in Underwater Explorers, overcoming every obstacle cancer put in his way. Zach’s gentle and witty spirit is remembered by Aquarium staff and volunteers each time we welcome young people into the program.

Over the years, our circle of supporters and sponsors has widened. Starting in 2005 we were able to offer Zach’s Day and a second Day of Discovery during the summer. This allowed even more children with disabilities the opportunity to participate. We’re fortunate to have the strong support of many volunteer divers and Aquarium staff. It’s our special good fortune that volunteer divers, Steve Lyon and Marv Tuttle, have generously given their time and talents too. These two men are themselves paraplegics, and helped us to better understand the needs and potential of the children we serve. They’ve undertaken much of the recruiting efforts for Days of Discovery and have become role models to the children we serve.

Since 2002, we have made much progress. Now funded through the Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals Program at Salinas Valley Memorial Healthcare System, the Monterey Bay Aquarium offers this free program on four special days throughout the summer to young people ages 8 to 14 with varying disabilities and special needs.  The Day of Discovery program has come to embody the spirit of inspiring conservation of the oceans through volunteerism, which is a central pillar of the Aquarium.

“The Day of Discovery embodies the mission of the Monterey Bay Aquarium – to inspire conservation of the ocean. With the support of the entire Aquarium community this program continues to offer a unique opportunity for this most deserving and too often underserved audience.”  

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George Peterson
Director of Dive Programs

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