If something seems a bit fishy about Eric Stein lately, it may just be the company he keeps. Taffy Entertainment’s VP of licensing is one of 150 volunteer divers at the Aquarium of the Pacific in California who help feed and clean up after more than 12,500 marine animals on Saturdays.
‘The exhibits are all designed after actual dive sites around the world, so I literally drive a half hour, and I’m diving in Pulau in the South Pacific,’ he says. ‘It’s really pretty extraordinary.’
Stein’s love affair with all things aquatic began at the tender age of 15, when he got to meet Jacques Cousteau; he was so inspired by the experience that he became a certified diver that same year. But joining the Aquarium’s dive team in his mid-’30s meant passing a Professional Association of Dive Instructors (PADI) advanced course and grueling rescue certification, as well as a medical and written exam and an underwater obstacle course.
Since then, Stein estimates he’s logged between 300 and 400 dives in his three years on the dive team, feeding everything from sharks and eels, to sea turtles and seals. ‘The thing that surprised me most was that a lot of the fish have different personalities,’ he says. ‘I’ll be in one exhibit feeding the leopard sharks, and it’s like feeding a bunch of puppies. From the outside, I imagine it looks pretty intimidating, but they’re just coming up for something to eat.’
The sea lion tank is also one of Stein’s favorite habitats because the curious critters will often come right up to play. In fact, you need to keep a close eye on any cleaning tools (a.k.a. toys) you bring in. Rays are another particularly cool species: ‘They like to come up and rub up against you, and they’ll cover you like a moving blanket. They seem happy to see you,’ says Stein. (He holds no illusions about the real reason for the lovefest, however; he does come bearing their dinner, after all.)
Next month, Stein’s team has been selected for special training to feed larger (and toothier) species in the Shark Lagoon exhibit. ‘It’ll be interesting to find out what it’s like to be face-to-face with a sand tiger,’ he says. While feeding sharks sounds fairly threatening to landlubbers, Stein says he’s more likely to get chomped by the littler fish.
Though he’s gone on dive trips all over the world, from Bonaire to Vanuatu, Stein says aquarium diving may very well have spoiled him for the ocean, where divers are lucky to catch a glimpse of most of the animals he gets to hand-feed at home.
But the best part about his hobby is the fact that it’s a retreat from his hectic life as a licensing exec. So if you run into Stein hammering out new deals for Pet Alien at MIPCOM, make sure to ask him for a fish tale or two. Just don’t do it over sushi!