For more than 30 years, Edwin Rodriguez has made the long commute to work in Clearwater every day from his home in Wesley Chapel.
But, for the past six years, he has been breaking up his Tuesday drive home with a stop at the Florida Aquarium in downtown Tampa.
There, he dons scuba gear and spends several hours cleaning the tanks. Rodriguez has racked up more than 640 hours of volunteering in that role, and others, at the aquarium.
For example, he says it makes him jump out of bed with a smile when there’s a special occasion.
“My favorite is Halloween,” he says. “Every year, I dress up like Spider-Man underwater, and the kids go nuts. Just imagine me crawling on the glass like a spider. The looks on the kids’ faces are just priceless.”
Edwin also volunteers to help clean Tampa Bay, especially after large events like the Gasparilla parade.
“We dive to clean the beads that end up in the water,” he says. “And not only beads. Last time we went, we got a couple of those scooters that people ride around town — all kinds of garbage that you wouldn’t even believe.”
Edwin started scuba diving in 1986 in his native Puerto Rico. He moved to Florida in 1988, and then discovered skydiving.
“At that point, I put my scuba gear away,” he says. When he suffered an injury not related to skydiving, Ruth, his wife of 21 years, told him it was time to find something different.
He agreed, on one condition. He needed to keep the adrenaline pumping, so they tried new adventures together. They started riding ATVs, and then jet skis.
“My wife said she’d like to try scuba diving,” explains Edwin, “and immediately, my passion for it came back.”
Wanting to spend more time underwater, he found out he could dive as a volunteer at the Florida Aquarium.
“Once I started, I began to understand the mission and vision of the aquarium,” he says. “When I started, my reason for volunteering was selfishly wanting to dive more, but now, I see the big picture. The aquarium’s work to restore the planet has deeply impacted me.”
“Every time I brush a coral (which you have to be properly trained to do), I realize I’m making an impact,” he says. “I’m making it more clean and safe for the animals, and helping the aquarium to be able to bring more people in, plus everything they do to help the planet that people don’t see.”
The process to become an aquarium volunteer is rigorous, and not everyone who wants to help is chosen to do so. Edwin explains that he first filled out an application, then attended a seminar to understand expectations, and completed a required medical test.
He then had to pass a swim test. He says that treading water for 10 minutes and demonstrating his scuba skills was no problem, but even after training, the now-55-year-old says it was difficult for him to swim the required number of meters in the time allotted. After that, he studied for and passed an online test, then started training, including learning how to properly dive in an aquarium.
He says it was all worth it, as he enjoys helping the aquarium, its animals and many visitors, including his six-year-old grandson. “He’s everything to me,” Edwin says. “He loves to go to the aquarium and would go every day if we would let him.”
Edwin was recently recognized at the Florida Aquarium’s annual appreciation event with its annual Outstanding Service Award.
“I don’t see me stopping anytime soon,” he says. “I want to retire from work when I turn 60 and I will have time available, so I want to use more of that time at the aquarium. If I get to the point where I can’t scuba dive, there are plenty of other things to do at the aquarium.”