Organizational Spotlight – Mississippi Aquarium, Gulfport, MS


By Dave Pitalo, Allison Shafer, & Felicia Silva

The Aquarium

Mississippi Aquarium Entry PlazaMississippi Aquarium is located in the historic town of Gulfport, Mississippi’s second-largest city along the “Riviera of the South,” and, (unsurprisingly, given its name) a world-class maritime terminal and a major economic driver of the state. The nonprofit Aquarium is a fairly new addition to the charming gulf town, opening its doors on August 29th, 2020. Its 5.8-acre grounds feature 12 indoor and outdoor, fresh and saltwater habitats with more than 200 species of aquatic animals, from American alligators all the way down to zebra sharks. The approximately 1-million-gallon facility’s centerpiece is a freshwater river winding its way through the landscaped campus, exhibiting many species of fish and reptiles including “Scrub” the alligator snapping turtle. Follow the freshwater river down to the dolphin habitat, where you’ll meet the Aquarium’s four resident Atlantic bottlenose dolphins – Axl, Finn, Nigel, and Archer. The large, three-story Oceans habitat is home to all of your favorite tropical fish species, including a variety of sharks and rays, as well as both green and Kemp’s ridley sea turtles. Guests can book once-in-a-lifetime experiences such as dolphin and penguin encounters, marine mammal “Trainer for a Day” program, and their SeaTREK® guided underwater experience (no swimming skills required!)

The Dive Program

The Mississippi Aquarium’s dive program currently has 28 active staff divers, 4 of whom make up the Dive Office and account for 67% of the dives conducted at the facility. They also have a burgeoning volunteer diver program, just getting their feet wet with a small group of 9 enthusiastic and dedicated divers. Since opening in August of 2020, the Aquarium has logged approximately 5500 dives between husbandry, maintenance, and the guest-immersion SeaTREK® program, fully run by the Dive Office. They deliver the safety briefing, fit the guests into wetsuits, get them in and out of the water, and act as safety divers on scuba. The SeaTREK program currently only runs on weekends due to the small size of the Dive Team. 

The dolphin habitat gets a lot of attention with three weekly scrub dives (Armadas, Nemos/Remoras, and hand brushes all being the tools of choice), and fortunately now occurs with the animals separated from the divers. A favorite dive of the dive staff is cleaning out the Beaver Habitat, a (thankfully) rare but exciting endeavor that occurs only when the sump gets clogged with “processed wood,” AKA, beaver poop. 

All dives are currently conducted under the commercial guidelines per OSHA, but they are working towards a hybrid program where the majority of dives will fall under the scientific exemption. 

There is still a lot of room to grow for such a young facility and dive program, and big plans are indeed in the works. They are working on creating an interactive dive show, a snorkeling program, a guided dive experience for certified guests, and even a possible certification program for non-certified aquarium staff. While there are no collaborative projects that involve diving at the moment, DSO Dave Pitalo is hopeful that they can leverage their proximity to the Gulf of Mexico to get involved in some local research projects that involve underwater work. We look forward to seeing how much this program will evolve in the coming years! 

Despite all the impressive work that has gone into building the dive program over the last few years,  DSO Dave’s biggest sense of pride might just come from the small but mighty Dive Team he works with on a daily basis. “They handle the majority of cleaning and maintenance tasks on the habitats we have that are diveable. They work hard, get along great, and only occasionally have bad days. When I look at our dive statistics, I’m amazed at how much diving 4 people are capable of.” Go, team, go! 

DSO Spotlight

Dave in SeattleMeet Dave Pitalo, a native to the Magnolia State and currently serving as the Dive Safety Officer for the Mississippi Aquarium! One might assume his dive journey would have started in one of the nation’s longest rivers but it was actually his life-changing trip to Cozumel in 2004 that launched him into the world of SCUBA diving! This discovery dive led Dave swiftly down the road to certification, where under the guidance of an inspiring mentor, he trekked onward to become a Divemaster and eventually complete his ITC in 2007 at Hall’s Diving Institute in Marathon, Florida. 

Dave says that he got into the world of zoos and aquariums by accident, it was his move back to his old stomping grounds to be closer to family that brought him back to the right place at the right time. When the announcement was made that his charming gulf town was about to build a new aquatic world, he thought “That’d be cool to work or volunteer there”. Lo and behold, Dave got to do so much more than that! Dave landed the job as a diver and was an instrumental force in shaping the dive program from its inception. It was April of 2021 when he stepped into the role of DSO for the Mississippi Aquarium. Let it be known that Dave, however, is not a biologist or trained scientist, so he loves the opportunities the aquarium has afforded him to learn about the different animals in their collection. 

Beyond the depths, Dave embodies the spirit of a “serial hobbyist.” Whether nurturing a vibrant home reef aquarium, pedaling through rides, rebuilding bikes, exploring amateur radio, or embarking on camping escapades with a travel trailer, his diverse interests allow him to explore other corners of our world!

Dive Staff Spotlight

Mississippi Aquarium - Dive TeamWhile Dave is the go-to-guy and jack of all trades when it comes to the Mississippi Aquarium’s Dive Ops, he is relieved to have a crew of 3 additional dive staff members to round out his team and cover all areas of their operation. Among them is Instructor Riley Barrett, otherwise referred to as a gear guru, he is the tinkerer and the more mechanically inclined player on the team. Adding structure and order to the group is Divemaster Michaela Fruci, an admin aficionado who keeps the team organized, manages the record keeping needs, and handles the DPIC data entry. The new fish onboard is Divemaster Dakota Herndon. As a relatively new dive professional, Dakota brings excitement and eagerness to the team as well as a curiosity for technical and CCR diving. What Dave loves most about his team is that they each excel in different areas and together they cohesively cover all areas of the Mississippi Aquarium dive ops.

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