Young boy floating underwater and wearing diving gear

Wonder in the Water

What's the best day of the year for the Aquarium's dive team? For 17 years it's been our Days of Discovery — a program that lets young people with disabilities experience the freedom and wonder of the ocean during a surface scuba experience in our Great Tide Pool.

The first Days of Discovery took place in 2003. More than 1,200 children have participated so far, and the event now takes place over three days each summer. The program began as a special part of our Underwater Explorers summer program, which in 2018 welcomed its 40,000th participant.

Zach Bunnell and George Peterson in the Great Tide Pool
Zach Bunnell and Director of Dive Programs George Peterson.

One of those kids stood out. In 2003, Zach Bunnell was too young to take part in Underwater Explorers but vowed to return the following summer. During the intervening year, he was blinded by a brain tumor. But he came back, and enjoyed an epic dive experience — and gave us a lesson in living life to the fullest.

Tragically, Zach died a few months later. To honor his courageous spirit, we named the days set aside for children with special needs the Zach Bunnell Days of Discovery for Kids with Exceptional Challenges.

Since 2011, we've partnered with the Salinas Valley Memorial Healthcare System through its Children's Miracle Network Hospitals Program to offer Days of Discovery free of charge to young people with special needs.

Thanks to the support of the entire Aquarium community, both of these inspiring and often life-changing programs continue to touch hearts and minds.


Left: Tyler Phelps wearing scuba gear 18 years ago. Right: Present day Tyler Phelps wearing scuba gear.

TYLER PHELPS has always loved the ocean. His family took many trips to the Aquarium, but the one that stands out is his first "scuba dive" as part of our Underwater Explorers program. He was eight years old, and that adventure nurtured his dream to become a marine biologist.

"It got me hooked on diving," Tyler says. "Although I didn't get scuba certified until later, I never forgot my inspirational experience."

Fast forward 18 years, and Tyler is now working on his master of science degree from San Francisco State University while serving as its assistant diving safety officer. He's also a graduate researcher in the department of ichthyology at the California Academy of Sciences, working with colleagues to study the ecology and evolution of fishes living in deeper regions of coral reefs known as the "twilight zone" — and discovering new species along the way.

Annual Review 2018 (PDF)

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