He never thought of diving as a spectator sport.

And he's not big into crowds, but volunteer diver Jeff Hofslund shared the spotlight with Mark Wick and dozens of trout, sturgeon and more last week at the Great Lakes Aquarium.

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It was Wednesday afternoon, the pair's usual time slot for the "Great Lakes, Great Fish" program.

Wick kicked flippered feet suspended in water high above the heads of the audience members on dry "ground" outside the 24-feet-deep Isle Royale tank. He joined Hofslund, who was crouched on the tank floor.

Both held bright yellow bags holding smelt and shrimp. Both were surrounded by hungry, hungry fish. A choir of bubbles, circular jewels in every size, floated upward.

Jenna Zamzow narrated the program and urged the audience: "Give the divers a wave, or a high five or a game of paper, rock, scissors."

A sturgeon wrapped its mouth around Hofslund's hand. Then, Helga, a 60-pound sturgeon, rested on her back on a nearby log. Hofslund took his cue and gave her a good belly rub.

"Jeff is like the sturgeon whisperer," said Wick before the two submerged in the clear waters.

The aquarium has about 40 dive volunteers. Diving there is a two-person job, and Wick and Hofslund are like an institution, said Allison Iacone, aquarium communications coordinator.

Hofslund has been volunteer diving since the aquarium opened 18 years ago. "I toured the facility before the tank had water in it," he said.

Wick's been diving at the aquarium for 14, and the two were friends long before hand-feeding fish in the Isle Royale tank. While underwater: "We understand each other without having to say anything," Wick said.

Wick, 66, grew up around boats and has always been drawn to water, which led to an interest in diving. He has been certified since 1986. And while today, the retired police officer has a full dance card - on the board for Grandma's Marathon and the Duluth Police Foundation, and working part-time as a student supervisor at Denfeld High School - he rarely misses his weekly aquarium dive.

Among his favorite parts: "You get underwater, all the outside noise goes away." Also, he likes interacting with the fish. "They all have their idiosyncrasies."

Sturgeon are similar to big puppies, the eelpout are shy, and trout and salmon tend to be quite aggressive, he said.

It doesn't happen often, but he has been bitten by muskies during a feeding. He adjusts now by letting the food float versus waiting for certain fish to take it from his hand, he said.

("We don't have any animals in the tank that can do damage to a human," Iacone said.)

A quick lesson in how the fish are smarter than meets the eye: When Wick or Hofslund have to catch one to move it to another tank, and the fish sees a net in their hand and notices they're looking at it - "They want nothing to do with you, and the race is on," Wick said.

For Hofslund, 67, his interest in diving started at age 13, snorkeling in Lester River. Today, he dives in Honduras pretty regularly, or he goes up the shore, to Bayfield or Brighton Beach.

Volunteering is a nice break from his day job as the owner of auto shop Foreign Affairs of Duluth.

"I come from work, where I have a telephone in my ear all day. I get to the aquarium, and it's quiet," he said. "I've come up with some of my best ideas while swimming in the aquarium."

Hofslund said he most looks forward to getting into the water, where you feel weightless.

"You can be right-side up or upside down. It's fun to be able to maneuver around," he said.

Wick and Hofslund wear about 70 pounds of equipment, including a buoyancy compensator, a dive computer, tank, wetsuits, gloves, a hood, mask and fins. And the gear isn't cheap. A decent dive computer is $1,000; a buoyancy compensator is about $500.

A benefit to volunteer diving is it allows them to stay current on their training and their gear.

"I can jump in the lake tomorrow and feel great about it," Hofslund said.

Iacone said the aquarium has volunteers who drive up from the Twin Cities to dive.

The accessibility of Great Lakes Aquarium is noteworthy, Hofslund said. "Every other aquarium in the world has a backlist of people waiting to dive in it for years, but not this one."

One reason is the tanks are 52 degrees, and others, for example in Chicago or Atlanta, can run up to 70-80. It can get chilly when you're feeding fish because you're staying in place, Wick said, but there's a warming reprieve after they're fed. That's when the divers scrub algae off the rocks, logs and the tank.

A big draw to volunteer diving is it feels productive and it's fun to see interest piqued in possible future divers, Hofslund said, "that people have an interest in taking care of the fish and the environment and the animals, that's a main reason that I do it."

After the program, the children dispersed outside the tank. In a nearby tank, an otter rubbed its snout on the otter cam.

It was Celia Moulds' first time at the aquarium. The Elk River woman was visiting Duluth, and she was looking forward to the jellyfish program later that afternoon. What stood out in Great Lakes, Great Fish program:

"The size of the fish, the size of the tank," she said. "I'd never seen a scuba diver before."

Want to volunteer dive?

Here's what you need:

• basic open water certification

• 10 open water dives (four can be from training)

Questions? Contact volunteer coordinator Danielle Tikalsky (218) 740-2015 or e-mail dtikalsky@glaquarium.org.