Parrotfish, bonnethead sharks, and cownose rays were some of the Shedd Aquarium's underwater inhabitants surprised Thursday when members of the Navy Experimental Diving Unit plunged into the Caribbean Reef exhibit they call home.
Dozens of visitors to the aquarium surrounded the exhibit, chatting excitedly as they watched divers Petty Officer 1st Class Chad Ernst and Petty Officer 1st Class Mike Panek move effortlessly among the sea life as part of Navy Week in Chicago, which goes until Monday.
At times followed by an inquisitive green turtle named Nickel, Ernst used a mask fitted with a microphone to talk to the crowd about the highlights of his Navy diver career.
"I was a marine mammal handler for Explosive Ordnance Disposal Mobile Unit Three, and I got to handle dolphins on a daily basis. That was by far the coolest job I've had," Ernst said.
A veteran of more than 1,000 dives, Senior Chief Kerry Bridges said the Experimental Diving Unit was responsible for testing equipment and protocols before they were implemented by the Navy. He said all Navy divers had to undergo extensive training for the job, but that it wasn't easy.
"There's a lot of glamorous parts of the job, but there's a lot of days where we're out there doing 16-hour days in the rain, in the cold -- hungry, wet, tired."
Many of the crowd's younger members had their imaginations stirred by the presentation. Eight-year-old Finn McDonald, visiting from New Jersey, said his family had a special love for the Navy because of his uncle Adm. Robert Shumaker.
"He was the longest held POW in (the) Vietnam (War). He got captured for eight years", McDonald said proudly.
His cousin, 10-year-old Keyler White from Chicago, said he had never seen anyone dive before the presentation. White said he would love to swim with the underwater creatures.
"These sharks aren't dangerous," he said confidently.