Press ENTER to search, ESC to clear

An Underwater Twist On Pumpkin Carving with @CLEAquarium

If you think carving a prize-winning pumpkin is difficult, try doing it underwater. Greater Cleveland Aquarium Dive Safety Coordinator Halle M. explains what makes carving underwater such a challenge and why it’s still so much fun. (Special thanks to Professional Diving Resources, who hosted the competition!)

The underwater pumpkin carving event you see here was held in Ohio at a local quarry called White Star Quarry. It’s a place where local divers often go for training and to freshen up their recreational SCUBA skills. It has a platform, which makes it really convenient for doing pumpkin carving underwater.

So, how does underwater carving work? Our divers are allowed to scoop out their pumpkins and open their tops before they enter the water. Once they’ve entered the water though, if they or their pumpkins surface they have to get out. Divers have a maximum of 2 hours to complete their carving. When everyone is finished, the jack-o-lanterns are displayed, judged and winners are selected.  

In this video, we’re on an underwater platform at a depth of 15 feet. We’re sitting/kneeling/lying on that platform to carve. We don’t want to sit or kneel on the bottom of the quarry because it would stir up the silt and make it difficult to see anything.  

Carving underwater is a challenge. Just imagine you’re one of us. You’re diving. You have your wetsuit, your mask, all of your equipment, weights and a SCUBA cylinder. You also have a pumpkin that’s constantly trying to float away from you and you’re using a big dive knife to try to to cut small details into a gourd. It definitely takes a lot of patience and attention to detail to do a good job.

I’ve been doing this for the last 5 or 6 years and I’ve learned a few things. My first tip is to bring a lot of extra weights and lot of warm wetsuit layers because it gets quite cold when you’re sitting still underwater. (This year was particularly cold. The air was 35 degrees when we arrived, but luckily the water was much warmer . . . 65 degrees.) It’s also really important to go in with a plan, to not stay to long and to pay close attention to what you’re doing. That all makes underwater carving with all its challenges a bit easier.

There were around 30 pumpkin carvers at the Quarry and 15 of those were associated with the Greater Cleveland Aquarium in some way. We brought along a few new participants to competing this year. Jamil and Damon had never done anything like this before but I think they enjoyed the challenge. Some of the pumpkins that our team created included traditional jack-o-lanterns, a walrus, a battery charge sign, a turtle, a ship and some goofy faces. The winner of the entire event had carved a SCUBA diver carved into their pumpkin, which clearly is an audience pleaser with this group. Two people who came from the Aquarium group placed 2nd and 3rd with their pumpkins. Crystal carved a ship being attacked by a squid and Taylor carved tortoise or a turtle. They were really awesome pumpkin designs and they worked very hard to bring them designs to life.

Events like this really do help to create camaraderie and to bring new divers into the fold. It’s a lot of good, old-fashioned fun and way to engage with diving and your friends that’s a little atypical. Here at the Aquarium we have divers in the water every day. A number of them got their start at White Star Quarry. If you’re interested learning to dive, check out Professional Diving Resources. Maybe next year you can carve pumpkins with us!

Author: Halle M.

Coral Reefs and Sunscreen

What can I do, here in Ohio to help protect the coral reefs thousands of miles away? The answer may surprise you. There are numerous ways YOUR individual actions can either hurt or help coral reefs around the world. One such action is the selection of your sunscreen! The sunscreen you have at home may contain chemicals that are extremely dangerous for coral reefs.

Image source:

Sunscreens are important to us they help prevent skin damage from the harsh ultraviolet rays of the sun. But, the protection of our skin comes at a cost, a few of the chemicals used in sunscreens have been found to have negative effects on coral reefs.  The ingredient oxybenzone is found in 65% of non-mineral sunscreens and it has recently been discovered to damage coral DNA. Oxybenzone, while thought to be an important ingredient for sunscreen has been found to negatively impact coral reefs across the globe.

Image Source: Halle Minshall

In 2005 Dr. Craig Downes and the United States National Park Service were working in collaboration to uncover the cause of coral losses in the U.S. Virgin Islands when they stumbled upon the role sunscreen played in coral death. The tourists, sunbathers, snorkelers and divers lathered in sunscreen and to enjoy turquoise blue waters were introducing chemicals that kill the very corals and damage the ecosystem they are trying to enjoy.

Image Source:

It is estimated that every year swimmers, snorkelers and divers introduce 14,000 tons of sunscreen to coral reefs. This introduction of the harsh chemical components in sunscreen, sea temperature rising and ocean acidification have worked together to create the perfect storm for coral reef destruction. Corals are living animals, not plants, these tiny animals build the foundations of the reef out of limestone. The tiny coral polyps live in large communities and play host to a special alga called zooxanthellae.  The zooxanthellae live inside the coral and share food they produce from photosynthesis in return for their safe housing.

Image Souce: Halle Minshall

So, what can you do to help the coral reefs?

Consider looking into some of the many “reef safe” sunscreen options and/or avoiding the need for sunscreen by wearing a hat or UV-safe long sleeved shirt and pants to protect your skin.  Alternatively, stay indoors instead of in the sun entirely.  We need to be more aware of the impact of our actions even though they may seem inconsequential.  Some states have begun to regulate the chemical components in sunscreen to help keep their coral reefs healthy.

Do your part and think about what you put on your body and into the ocean and coral reef ecosystem!

More Dangerous than Sharks

Did you know that the Florida Museum of Natural History documents all known shark attacks? They started the ISAF (International Shark Attack File) back in 1958. If we use the data collected to average fatalities from sharks over the last 60 years, the number is only 7 per year worldwide. If you put that into odds, it is 1 in 3,700,000. Now let’s compare that with the odds of dying from the flu, which is 1 in 63.

Turns out there are lot of things more dangerous than sharks, but we don’t seem to be afraid of them. So let’s take a look at what SHOULD scare us more than sharks.

How about bugs? Those annoying mosquitos are responsible for 800,000 deaths a year. Fire ants account for another 50 people and bees will kill 100 people in the U.S. alone. Those are large numbers for being such small animals.

There are plenty of other animals more dangerous to humans than sharks. Take, for example, the noble steed. Yup, horses kill about 20 people in the U.S. per year. Then there’s the loyal dog. (What can be better than a lick in the face from our beloved friend?) Turns out, dogs are responsible for 25,000 human deaths annually worldwide. And how about Bambi? Such a cute little creature, but deer are the reason 130 people die each year in the U.S. It seems cars and deer do not like each other very much.

So let’s focus on the automobile. There are more than 1.2 million traffic-related deaths every year. Traffic lights will be part of that with 2,000 deaths in the U.S. alone. People just ignore those lights but that could be because we’re all wrapped up in our online worlds. Cell phones should be far more feared than our finned-friends since 6,000 deaths in the U.S. are attributed to texting and driving.

Now that you have considered how dangerous the roads can be, perhaps you will decide to start walking more. Be forewarned—almost 6,000 people die every year from trips and falls. And if that (or any of these statistics) make you want to never leave your home, just remember that on average 450 people in the U.S. die from falling out of that bed, 26 people are crushed by sofas, and 30 folks are done in by falling televisions.

Hey, get outside already, go cut the lawn it is excessively high, but then you may be thinking about the 75 people in the U.S. that die from lawnmower accidents or the 24,000 people that die from lightning strikes every year. (Are those clouds over there?) Oh well, all this is making me hungry. Let us go wash up and go have some dinner, but watch out for the hot water. In the U.S., scalding tap water will kill 100 people this year. And oh, by the way, food—the very thing that keeps us alive—holds potential dangers. The World Health Organization estimates that about 420,000 people die yearly from contaminated food. (Five thousand of those are from contaminated raw meat within the U.S. alone.) Another 3,000 people a year die from choking and the National Institutes of Health has calculated that obesity is killing almost 300,000 people a year. And if you eat out often, take care when you sign your restaurant check because believe it or not, ballpoint pen caps are responsible for taking out 100 people per year.

So now that you are totally stressed out by these statistics, take a walk on the beach and try not to trip. However, watch out for the falling coconuts since they will add 150 people a year to that list of fatalities.

Let us celebrate being alive and safe from those sharks, but watch the champagne corks during that celebration so you do not add to the approximate 25 people per year that are killed by those projectiles!

– Matthew Ballish

Coral Reefs Need Our Help!

One of the most biodiverse ecosystems in the world, coral reefs are in serious peril. Coral reefs take up about 1% of the ocean floor but are home to 25% of all ocean species including more than 4,000 species of fish.

What is a coral reef?

Coral reefs are colonies of individual animals called polyps. The polyps have tentacles to feed on plankton at night and they play host zooxanthellae—symbiotic algae that live within the coral’s tissues and gives them color. The algae need carbon dioxide and waste products from the coral for photosynthesis. In turn, through photosynthesis the algae nourish the coral with oxygen and organic compounds. The coral uses these compounds to synthesize calcium carbonate (limestone) with which it constructs its skeleton.  This skeleton contains bands, like tree rings, that record environmental changes in temperature, water chemistry and water clarity.

Why should we care about coral reefs?

Coral reefs are also known as the speed bumps of the ocean. These structures act as a natural barrier, helping to slow down and shrink waves hurtling toward the shoreline and thereby protecting coastlines and the 200 million people living along the coasts from hurricanes.

We receive many other benefits from coral reefs. Stationary animals, coral are constantly evolving chemical defenses as protection from predators.  Scientists are developing new medicines from the coral-produced compounds to help treat cancer, arthritis, bacterial infections, Alzheimer’s disease, heart disease, viruses and many others.

Coral reefs also provide us with food and construction materials. They also contribute heavily to the economy via tourism.

Why are coral reefs endangered?

Believe it or not coral reefs can get stressed out! There are a variety of different factors that contribute to the stress of coral reefs. For example, rising temperatures globally causes coral bleaching. Also, additional carbon dioxide oceans absorb every day contributes to increased acidification which reduces the water’s ability to carry the calcium carbonate that corals need to build skeletons.

Additionally, overfishing is changing the coral reefs ecosystem with anchors and nets destroying the natural habitat.  And when sediment and other pollutants settle on coral reefs it can speed the growth of damaging algae and lower overall water quality. With lower water quality the sunlight may not be strong enough to reach the zooxanthellae to go into photosynthesis.

How can we help?

Scientist are working to find some solutions, but all of us can join the effort to help coral reefs by reducing our carbon footprints. Try recycling or using more reusable products. Join the skip-the-straw movement reducing single-use plastic waste. Only eat fish sourced sustainably. Or, donate to organizations and support companies committed to cleaning up our oceans.


Baby Shark! Shark Reproduction Continued

Shark reproduction is pretty strange to begin with. But for sand tiger sharks, it is even weirder.

Sand tigers are the largest sharks you’ll see at the Greater Cleveland Aquarium. Their mating behavior is pretty ferocious.

We don’t know what prompts female sand tigers to be ready to mate. They must be mature enough in age—somewhere in their teens—and the females must also be ready to mate, which happens about every two years. We are not sure how (or if) females select mates. Scientists are still studying this!

When sand tigers mate, the much smaller males must bite and forcibly flip over the much larger and thicker-skinned females.

But before the sharks get to that point, there is a period of courtship behavior—sort of like shark dating.

Males might follow a female, swimming behind and slightly below her in the water. Then he might escalate to tailing, during which he very closely follows her. The next step is nosing. The male will follow the female very closely, with his nose, or rostrum, very close to her cloaca. (The cloaca is a shark’s reproductive canal and its way to poop. Both males and females have a cloaca.) Then the male will nudge the female, then bite her fins or body—all the while hoping to bite her and flip her over to mate.

If the male is successful, he will bite the female on the pectoral (arm-position) fin and try to flip her over. She then will become catatonic and will allow mating.

But, if the female is not interested at any point, she may bite the male right back! And remember, the females are much larger and thicker-skinned than the males. Female sand tigers can also circle close to the bottom to prevent males from approaching her to bite.

If the female is interested in mating, she may point her nose downward and allow the male a better chance to bite her.

Then the male sand tiger can hold the female’s cloaca with his clasper. Claspers are two finger-like appendages that all male sharks, skates, and rays have behind their pelvic fins. The male can then deliver his sperm, cloaca to cloaca before swimming away.

The female can store the male’s sperm for an unknown amount of time—perhaps a year, perhaps more—until it seems a good time to carry pups.

Now things get even stranger.

The female sand tiger has two uteruses. So sand tigers can carry two totally separate pregnancies.

Since sand tigers are ovoviviparous, they lay eggs internally and then give live birth. But for sand tigers, life starts under difficult circumstances. Around 20 eggs may be fertilized in each uterus. Then the eggs develop into shark embryos. The embryos grow bigger and consume all the nutrition in their individual eggs.

Then the biggest, strongest sand tiger pup in each uterus eats all of its siblings. Intrauterine cannibalism! That is what scientists call it.

The surviving sand tiger pup eats whatever new eggs keep arriving in the uterus until it is ready to be born.

After eight or nine months’ gestation, the pup is born. It will be more than three feet long and totally independent immediately.

Scientists are still learning about sand tiger shark reproduction. At the Greater Cleveland Aquarium we have seen mating behavior, but no pups yet.

– Nora Morrison

Baby Shark! Shark Reproduction

In the Shark Gallery seatube, we often hear guests singing “Baby Shark” and sometimes we are asked how baby sharks are born. The answer to that is really fascinating.

There are around 500 species of sharks that we know of, and sharks are extremely varied in their size, body shape and how they reproduce.

All baby sharks begin when a male shark and a female shark mate. How sharks find each other, how they select mates and why they decide to mate is still something scientists are investigating.  The male normally bites the female to hold onto her and flip her over, and then uses his fingerlike appendage, called clasper, to deliver sperm.  Since female sharks are generally bigger than male sharks, this can be difficult for males.

The female shark can store the male’s sperm until the time is right to fertilize the eggs–sometimes even waiting for years! Then things get even stranger.

Baby sharks, which are known as pups, can be born in three quite different ways.

First, some sharks lay eggs. We call this oviparous. The “mommy shark” lays an egg case in a good spot and swims away. The egg case, which is sometimes called a mermaid’s purse,” can be perfectly camouflaged to blend in with the sea floor or algae. The egg includes all of the nutrition the pup will need to grow from a fertilized embryo to a fully functioning shark pup. When the pup is ready, it emerges from the egg case and is totally independent.

Second, some sharks grow from eggs–but inside the mother shark’s body. This is called ovoviviparous. In this type of reproduction, there is no placenta to link the “mommy shark” and the “baby shark.” The shark pup gets all of its nutrition from its own egg yolk, other egg yolks, or (yikes!) from eating its fellow fertilized eggs or other pups. Ovoviviparous sharks give live birth to a fully independent pup. This is how sand tiger sharks, like the ones you can see at the Greater Cleveland Aquarium, reproduce.

And third, some sharks do have a placenta and directly support the shark embryo until it is ready to be born as a pup. This is called viviparous, and is also how humans are born. When the shark pup has matured enough, it is born and swims away. This is how sandbar sharks, which you can also see at the Aquarium, have pups.

All sharks are born ready to fend for themselves! As soon as they’re born, shark pups are ready to swim, hunt and grow.

-Nora Morrison

Gender Reveal: Fish

“Is that fish a girl or a boy?” is a common question we get asked at the Aquarium.  With some species it is a very easy question to address but with others it can be a bit more complicated.  (Sometimes the answer can even be both!)

If a species is sexually dimorphic, males and females will look different from each other.  Sometimes this is just a subtle variation in color or shape but it can also mean the two sexes look radically different from one another. A good example of this is a species of angler fish. The females of this species can grow to over a foot long, while males only grow to about half an inch!

Some species of fish show no sexual dimorphism and it can be impossible to tell the difference between males and females without looking inside the animal’s body.  For some species at the Aquarium we can make an educated guess based on mating behaviors, but for others we just don’t know. The green moray eels in the Shark Gallery are one example of a fish that has no sexual dimorphic traits. Both sexes look identical.

Adding another layer of complication is the fact that some fish have the ability to switch sexes throughout their lifetime while others are both male and female at the same time. This is known as hermaphroditism, and there are many different forms. There’s simultaneous hermaphroditism, seen in species of hamlets, where the animal has both male and female reproductive organs and can play either role in mating. A more common type is sequential hermaphroditism, where an animal changes from one sex to the other at some point in its life.  This can be further broken down into more categories: changing from male to female (protandry), female to male (protogyny), male to hermaphrodite (protandrous hermaphroditism) or female to hermaphrodite (protandrous hermaphroditism).  This phenomena is not uncommon and you may be surprised at how many fish you know that fall under one of these categories.

One of the most recognizable fish at the Aquarium is the clownfish.  What some people don’t know is that clownfish are actually sequential hermaphrodites—protandry to be exact. When it comes to clownfish hierarchy, the female is dominant.  She is the largest fish in the group and the next largest is her male mate. The remaining fish in the group are smaller, undeveloped and unable to breed. If the female dies, the largest male then grows and becomes female and the next fish in line matures to assume the role of breeding male.

Groupers, angelfish, gobies, damselfish and wrasses (my favorite being the rooster hogfish) all fall under the protogynous category.  This means that these species start out as females and can quickly switch and become males if the dominate male leaves.  This type of hermaphroditism is more common and benefits the fish by allowing them to produce the maximum number of offspring.  It is a size-based reproductive strategy with large, strong males protecting the nesting sites of many smaller females.  For these species it is beneficial for females to produce many offspring while small and then become males when they themselves are bigger.  It is also beneficial because it’s a big ocean out there and sometimes difficult to find another member of your species let alone one of the correct sex. The ability to switch sexes means these fish have more opportunities to find a mate.

Hermaphroditism has evolved independently in fish many times and has proven to be a successful reproductive strategy throughout the animal kingdom.


Rooster hogfish are both sequential hermaphrodites and sexually dimorphic.  Can you spot the differences between the female (top) and the male (bottom)?

– Kelsey Scheutzow, Greater Cleveland Aquarium Diver

Scuba Cylinders

Scuba equipment is absolutely critical to keeping divers protected and alive. Today, I want to talk about the one piece of gear that we divers need and is often overlooked—the scuba cylinder. Scuba cylinders supply air, enabling us to explore the underwater world that we have come to love. They come in many different shapes and sizes to serve different needs.

Back when the sport of scuba diving started, many innovative divers would actually take, used fire extinguishers and convert them for diving purposes. Today, we know this is not the best option, but just 40 or 50 years ago there was not much in the way of “dive shops” to go to. In fact back in those days a person could just walk into a local department store and buy most of what he or she needed to dive. It wasn’t until the creation of the first dive training and certification agencies that the sport started to become a little more like what you may recognize today.

Modern scuba cylinders come in two main materials: steel and aluminum. Each of those has their place within the industry. Steel is really the preferred choice of technical divers that go into the darkest reaches of the underwater world. It is more durable, has a better weight balance and can be more easily filled to higher pressures–all the way up to 5000 PSI (pounds per square inch).

Aluminum on the other hand is lighter and cheaper, so for the recreational diver or for the dive operation that needs a large supply of them, this becomes the better choice. Aluminum is not as forgiving when it comes to its durability and cannot be filled to as high a pressure. Aluminum cylinders can be bought in almost any color your heart desires. While, steel are usually galvanized dipped and look just like your neighbor’s chain link fence…lol.

Cylinder capacity is dictated by several factors. First, divers have to consider just how long you intend to stay underwater and the depth, since the deeper you are the more air you will use. Your breathing rate is the last piece of information to consider. Cylinder capacity is measured in cubic feet, and they can range from 3 cubic feet to more than 120 cubic feet. An average recreational aluminum scuba cylinder has a capacity of 80 cubic feet and generally weighs about 35 pounds and more than 42 pounds when full.

What do we put in scuba cylinders? That’s actually a bit of a trick question. Many people think that cylinders are full of oxygen but that is relatively unusual, most cylinders have air. What is air? Air is 78% nitrogen, 21% oxygen and 1% trace elements. It is very important for a diver to know what is in his or her scuba cylinder because diving with a gas mixture different from air can have consequences. Diving pure oxygen at depth can be a fatal mistake! One alternative gas some divers use is nitrox, which is similar to air but with less nitrogen and more oxygen. Using nitrox in our cylinders allows diver to stay at depth for longer and we divers love that.

So next time you are thinking “awwww . . . it’s just a cylinder,” you may want to ponder just a bit longer. Cylinder purchases and fills are important and if you are buying the lime green cylinder because it’s cool, there may be more to think about.

– Matthew Ballish

Lake Erie: Under the Waves

Written by: Halle Minshall & Ray Danner


There’s more to Lake Erie than meets the eye. We talked to one of the Greater Cleveland Aquarium’s divers about his experiences exploring this Great Lake’s hidden depths while surveying historical shipwrecks.

Lake Erie has a long history of shipping traffic and ideal water conditions for preservation. Still, you might be surprised to know that there are an estimated 1,400 shipwrecks in Lake Erie alone. With an average depth of just 62 feet and a maximum depth of 210 feet, the wrecks of schooners, barges, tugs and sidewheel steamers are mostly accessible to SCUBA divers.

How did you get involved in Lake Erie shipwreck diving?

Ray: I am always looking for interesting dive opportunities. I began volunteering with the Maritime Archaeological Survey Team (MAST), a nonprofit group founded in 2000 and dedicated to documentation, study and education pertaining to the underwater resources in the Great Lakes. MAST trains divers of any skill and experience level in the finer points of underwater surveys so that they can join the field teams in Lake Erie. We use a lot of the same skills to survey a shipwreck as we do diving at the Aquarium.

How many shipwrecks have been surveyed?

Ray: So far ONLY five have been surveyed and registered as official archaeological sites with the State of Ohio, meaning there are lots of unrealized survey opportunities. The freshwater of Lake Erie aids in the preservation of these shipwrecks so there are a good number yet to be located and identified.


What do you do when you survey the wrecks?

Ray: We lay a tape measure as a baseline running the length of the wreck. From there, we use a method called trilateration to nail down the distances from one object to another and determine the relative position and size of all items on the wreck. It can be challenging to do underwater measurements in three dimensional space, especially in cold water with low visibility. Learning underwater communication techniques and task-loading strategies is very important for all of the divers. Each dive team is assigned a small section of the wreck to survey and it can take several dives to cover even a 5-foot section of a shipwreck. After each dive all of the diver teams come together to input there new data onto a working map and sort out what data points are of priority for the subsequent dives. Through this tedious process an image is slowly formed of the bits and pieces of shipwreck lying on the lake bottom.

Two divers measuring the hatch cover of the Schooner the Dundee in Laker Erie. The diver on the left is recording the distance from the baseline to the interior edge of the hatch cover. The diver on the right is holding position on the baseline as a reference point. (Photo Credit: Jack Papes)

That sounds really interesting can I get involved?

Ray: Yes, MAST hosts a workshop every spring at the Great Lakes Museum, which trains local divers and non-divers alike. During the classroom training workshops, you’ll practice using mock surveys and the trilateration method for measuring and mapping a wreck. A final lesson is held in the waters of the White Star Quarry where divers put their new skills to the test.

Why is this important?

Ray: Lake Erie is closely tied to the lives and livelihoods of many Ohioans and it is a great resource. I think it is extremely interesting to take a look at how we used this resource in our past with the shipping and transporting of goods along the lakes shores. In learning about these shipwrecks we also learn how much we need to protect the lake they rest within.