Like many kids this holiday season, the Arnold brothers will have their picture taken with Santa Claus. But it won’t happen in the middle of a crowded shopping center. Simon, 10, and Henry, 8, will stand in front of the shimmering waters of an aquarium, where jolly St. Nick swims alongside stingrays, spiny lobsters and colorful angelfish.
On Sunday, Dec. 17, the Scuba Santa series returns to the Great Maya Reef exhibit in the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas, where Simon and Henry’s father, James Arnold, works. It runs until Sunday, Dec. 24.
“They’re excited. And they love coming to the Aquarium, so it’s perfect,” said Arnold, the Audubon Aquarium’s senior curator of exhibit operations. He’s the supervisor of the dive safety officer, who manages the aquatic team of 75 volunteer and six staff members.
The group also feeds the penguins on the second floor of the aquarium, near the Amazon Rainforest exhibit.
When Scuba Santa swims through the Maya tunnel, he waves at the crowd through acrylic panels that range from 6 to 8 inches thick. Two mischievous elves wearing scuba gear join the fun.
The divers’ costumes, worn over wet suits, are made of felt cloth similar to the material of a “well-made Santa costume that you buy at Party City,” Arnold explained. The outfits are modified to fit under the buoyancy vest and reinforced so that they “don’t fall apart.”
The suit sleeves, bordered by white faux fur, are slightly loose fitting, but the rest of the costume is compact to ensure the diver’s safety. The festive scuba outfits are topped with a red hat, along with a scuba mask, an air tank and fins.
“We also dunk the costumes in fresh water for a certain amount of time, to make sure the colors don't bleed out,” he said. Arnold’s team even checks Santa's curly beard and wig every year, to make sure that the hairpieces are not shedding.
After Santa and his elves are in full costume, they enter the mystical exhibit together and float among the traces of Mayan architecture and sunken treasures.
“It takes a lot of logistics to get in and out of the water, but our volunteer dive teams are really well coordinated, and they love this exercise,” Arnold said. “It's a fun thing for them to do. So they put that extra effort into wearing the costume and working out all the logistics.”
To the divers, the extra effort is well worth it.
“The kids are seeing Santa and the elves in a way that they've never seen them before,” Arnold said. “It's something different for the adults, too, because now they don't have to go to the mall and stand in a line for a picture with Santa Claus. They can walk around the aquarium, and their child can take a photograph next to Santa, surrounded by tropical fish.”
What: Scuba Santa
When: Sunday (Dec. 17) through Christmas Eve. Check website for schedule.
Where: The Audubon Aquarium of the Americas (1 Canal St.; (504) 565-3033; audubonnatureinstitute.org/aquarium)