COLUMBUS, Ohio — Some of the best scuba diving in central Ohio is just a chore away.

Nearly 60 experienced divers gladly pick up a toilet-bowl brush and scrub the artificial reef or feed the fish at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium's Discovery Reef, all for the opportunity to swim with more than 70 species of fish, rays and sharks.

Dave Martin, 60, started diving at the zoo in 1998, first as a cleaner and now as one of the feeders. There's a simple reason he keeps coming back.

"If you're a scuba diver, being in the water is what it's all about, and diving in Discovery Reef is the best diving in central Ohio," said Martin, Sunbury's village administrator. "You can't go to the Caribbean every weekend to dive in clear water."

Volunteers have been helping out in the tank since 1989; a few members of that original class are still diving. The scuba divers are a small contingent of the zoo's volunteers, but their job is so popular that the zoo gave up on adding people to a waiting list years ago, said curator Mike Brittsan. Like all other volunteers, divers are covered by the zoo's liability insurance.

Although it's one of the most in-demand jobs, it isn't always the most glamorous. Some pick up one of three weekly cleaning shifts, scrubbing the artificial reef with sponges and rough brushes to bring out the vibrant colors.

Others take part in daily feedings. The diver in the tank will wear an underwater communication mask, which allows talking to the visitors outside while hundreds of fish and a few sharks swim around and eat their lunch.

"When you're in there to feed, they follow you around," said Martin, whose favorite fish is the unicorn tang. "They're your best friend in the world."

Divers don't have just schools of fish trailing them. They have groups of kids pressed up against the glass, watching them do their work. Often, the zoo visitors are more interested in what the diver is doing than in the hundreds of fish.

"When we're cleaning, sometimes we get focused, and we'll turn around and there's a whole group of school kids," said diver Clyde Woodburn.

A former military diver who is a dive instructor, Woodburn has scuba-dived in the Galapagos and Indonesia and with white sharks in South Africa. He often takes students from Aquatic Adventures Ohio to local quarries to explore, but those places can't compare with the zoo.

"At the zoo, you get 65 different types of fish, and you get the color," Woodburn said. "It's a different environment totally."

Time in the tank allows divers to see things that most zoo visitors miss. Martin recalled finding four newborn baby stingrays on one New Year's Eve.

"Now, I know which fish bite me when I get in there," Martin said. "I know to look for shark eggs ... You look at it different, because you know some of what's going on, other than just fish going back and forth."

The volunteers' backgrounds are varied; doctors, lawyers, teachers and housewives are among the divers.

"And their love, their passion, is diving," said Woodburn. "They're all very experienced divers."

One of the newest volunteers, Ben Deutschle, earned his scuba certification four years ago, prompted by his mother-in-law, also a volunteer diver. It took him until November to get a spot cleaning the tank once a week on Mondays.

"There's a lot of reward," Deutschle said. "The opportunity to do this in itself is a reward."

Even with all the time he spends in the tank now, Deutschle still enjoys visiting Discovery Reef with his wife and three children, ages 7, 4 and 11 months.

"The wonderment never leaves," he said, "sitting there, watching the fish."

Information from: The Columbus Dispatch,