Jeff Hedlund has always loved fish. He’s been keeping aquariums at home for as long as he can remember. An avid scuba diver, Hedlund graduated from the University of Colorado with degrees in biology and environmental science. In 2002, he went to work at the Maui Ocean Center as a naturalist. A year later, he became of the center’s divers.
Now he feeds the sharks.
We’re not just talking the relatively docile rays, sandbar, blacktip and whitetip reef sharks that reside in the mammoth 750,000-gallon salt-water aquarium. He also has to contend with the larger, potentially more aggressive grey reef, hammerhead and tiger sharks.
Consequently, people ask Hedlund one question repeatedly.
“Are you crazy?”
“Perhaps,” says Hedlund. But he says the sharks are fed well and are not generally interested in people. Attacks, for all the media attention they get, are still rare.
“At first, it was exciting,” he says. “It was exhilarating being bumped by a sandbar shark while cleaning a window about a month after I started working. Now it happens so frequently.”
As with most jobs, there are other more mundane aspects Hedlund has to deal with. Every morning, the Center’s divers do a “walk-through,” ensuring that the water, filtration and lighting systems are functioning properly, and checking to see that the various exhibits’ creatures get fed. There’s also exhibit maintenance to conduct—mainly, cleaning walls, dusting, vacuuming and making sure there’s no algae in the delicate environments.
Possibly the most important, and least liked task for the divers is the servicing of two filter pipelines that extend 1,500 feet into the ocean outside the harbor. Divers are in charge of spending hours pressure-washing the intake sleeves, as well as vacuuming a concrete-covered pit underwater.
“It’s not fun,” says Hedlund.
Also, the team sometimes conducts collection dives for exhibits and surveys for the Department of Land and Natural Resources. On alternate days of the week, two staff divers supervise the Center’s “Shark Dive” program, where certified-diver guests pay to have the opportunity for a guaranteed and safe, close encounter of the pelagic kind.
And then there’s the feedings.
There are four divers on staff, with two to three working each day. The Open Ocean Exhibit feedings—or Divelink presentations, as they call them—take about 30 minutes, depending on the audience size and participation. The sharks and rays, as well as the jacks and nearly 2,000 other fish in the tank, are hand-fed a mixture of clams, mussels, anchovies and vitamin-fortified squid from a mesh bag the divers carry.
Meanwhile, a Center naturalist is narrating the feeding, taking questions from the audience and relaying back answers from the divers, as they’re feeding and making new friends with the various sea creatures in the tank.
“My favorite is the Spotted Eagle Ray,” says Hedlund. “She’s super dynamic, beautiful, personable—interacts with the divers…”
“Are you flirting with the Eagle Ray again?” asks Liz Smith, Marketing and Public Relations Manager for Maui Ocean Center.
“Yeah, and she smells good, too,” says Hedlund, laughing. “It’s just kinda neat to have a large animal so inquisitive of a person.”
But thinking of the future, Hedlund is uncertain where his shark diving experience will take him—or whether this is his career for life.
“It’s definitely different from other jobs,” he says. “I don’t know… Oh, look! That tiger shark is going to the bathroom!”
Hedlund suddenly points to a murky stream trailing a shark swimming by. In front of it, a completely oblivious family is busy taking a photo.
“That’s rare,” he says with awe.
Maui Ocean Center is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is $22 for adults; $19 for seniors; $15 for keiki (ages 3-12); free for keiki under three. Ask a naturalist for shark feeding times, as they do vary. For more info, call (808) 270-7000.