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NewsFeb 9, 2018

Taking the plunge to fulfill a decades-long dream

Threshold Director Ernst VanBergeijk dives in New England Aquarium Great Ocean Tank

Threshold director Ernst VanBergeijk gives an underwater thumbs-up in the ocean tank at the New England Aquarium.

Many people have a “bucket list” of things they want to experience before, well … but some buckets are bigger than others. Some are the size of the New England Aquarium’s Great Ocean Tank.

That’s precisely where Ernst VanBergeijk, director of our Threshold Program, fulfilled a three-decade-old dream earlier this winter. He is a longtime scuba diver and member of the New England Aquarium Dive Club. At a monthly meeting last November, VanBergeijk won a raffle, awarding him the opportunity to dive in the miniature ocean.

Threshold director Ernst VanBergeijk dives in the ocean tank at the New England Aquarium.
Ernst VanBergeijk in the Great Ocean Tank at the New England Aquarium. (Courtesy: TahomaPhoto.com)

As head of Threshold, VanBergeijk oversees our two-year, college-based program that encompasses career training and life skills for young people with special learning challenges. His students, along with Threshold alumni and staff, were on hand when the big day came. They saw VanBergeijk cavorting with exotic tropical fish and even a giant sea tortoise or two. Here’s more about how the dive went down:

Where else have you dived? Which spot was your favorite?

I have been a scuba diver for over 40 years and a scuba diving instructor for over 30 years, so it’s really hard to pick just one place as my favorite.

I started diving the shipwrecks in the Great Lakes when I was 13 years old. I have dived the kelp beds in California; the coral reefs of many Caribbean islands; the Meso-American Barrier Reef off of Mexico and Belize; springs, caverns and caves in the Bahamas and Florida; and even Bali, Indonesia.

I have been delightfully surprised at how much sea life is right here in New England and spent last summer exploring Cape Ann and the Gloucester area. Each environment has something beautiful and unique to see.

How did the New England Aquarium experience compare to and contrast with previous dives?

It was a dream come true! As a student at the University of Michigan, I dated a woman who went to college in Boston. One of our early dates was a trip to the Aquarium, where I saw divers in the tank and I remember wanting to dive in the Great Ocean Tank. Almost 40 years later my dream came to fruition. It was the fastest 30 minutes of my life. The time flew by.

Sea turtle looking at its reflection in a tank at the New England Aquarium.
Green sea turtle admiring his reflection from inside the Great Ocean Tank.

Diving in the tank differs from the ocean because it is so densely packed. All the fish are coming at you in the same direction because the current in the tank only goes in one direction. It’s kind of like swimming in freeway traffic against the flow.

What sort of lessons does fulfilling this goal impart to Threshold students and alumni?

It’s important to have goals and dreams. Hold onto them. Be patient, but you can make them happen. It’s also important to fill your life with things you love to do.

What is it about diving that appeals to you? Is it the chance to see life forms, geography, etc. unavailable any other way? The solitude? Danger?

Scuba diving is a very safe sport that always has an element of adventure to it. You never know what you are going to see. I have seen all sorts of beautiful marine life from amazing coral formations to tiny sea horses to sharks of all kinds.

On night dives, I have seen bioluminescence trailing off my fins that looks like fairy dust. It’s magical.

Scuba diving is also very peaceful and serene. I am most relaxed while diving.

What is your next diving goal?

I have a few goals related to diving. First, I would like to break 1,000 open water dives in the next year or so. I have less than 200 more to go. Second, I would like to get dry suit certified and learn to dive under ice. Eventually, I would like to head to the Arctic and Antarctica.

Finally, I would like to organize a dive expedition for Spring Break 2019. Do you know anyone who wants to go?