In any other instance, a man that carries a bag of teeth around in his pocket might be considered a little bit strange, but in the case of veteran volunteer Dennis Burk; it’s just another day at the Aquarium.
Burk, a 22-year volunteer, loves showing curious kids and even adults what a pearly, pointy sand tiger shark tooth looks like up close. “It’s neat for them to make the connection that these right here [pointing to the teeth in his palm] are actually the chompers that come out of Orion and Hunter,” Burk says, referring to the Aquarium’s two resident sand tiger sharks, “And most times, I let them take one home as a souvenir.”
In his professional career, Burk worked as a RN at Christus Spohn Hospital Corpus Christi- South and also at the health center’s Beeville location. Other job duties included teaching hospital education courses in crisis intervention, CPR training, and also coaching staff how to use new medical instruments. After moving to Colorado for work, Burk decided in the early nineties that it was time to come back to the Coastal Bend.
“I missed my ocean,” he says. “I was a 35-year Divemaster and when I moved back and saw the Aquarium opening. I jumped at the opportunity to become a volunteer.”
Burk is passionate about diving, a hobby he took up while in Guam serving in the Air Force during the Vietnam War.
“The water was crystal clear and there were these huge blue starfish that were just so cool,” Burk remembers.
Since, Burk has dived all over the Gulf, as well as the Caribbean. The unique sponges found diving the waters of the Cayman Islands are one of his favorite sights, and now so are many of the fish in exhibits at the Aquarium. Burk dives in the Aquarium’s Flower Gardens and Islands of Steel habitats, befriending many a finned inhabitant. While he loves diving, Burk says it’s interacting with Aquarium visitors that “pays all the bills.”
“I’m a certain personality, you know? And teaching is a large part of my background. So not only do I enjoy talking to people, I also love to inform them, and to teach them about this amazing world, these animals around them.”
Burk started out as what’s referred to as a “brown apron,” then took the proper volunteer training courses to become a top-tier “blue vest” volunteer, a place of honor that requires the wearer to be able to speak at length about all areas of the Aquarium.
Burk says his passion for animals, diving, and teaching are all fulfilled in his position as a volunteer at the Aquarium, a fact he’s truly thankful for.
“This place is not only great for the community and all the economic benefits it provides locally, but the people here are great. I’ve met a lot of staff and had a lot of fun here and I just love that I’m a piece of all that, I’m a part of this place,” he states.
Burk has enough anecdotes and stories concerning late night banquets, visitor questions, and diving adventures to fill the Islands of Steel exhibit he loves so much, but there’s one that stands out in his memory.
“There was a mother and her three little daughters visiting one day, years ago, and I was getting ready to dive in Islands,” he recalls. “So I went out and introduced myself to them and told them that soon I’d be diving in there. And they were hysterical! They said, ‘In THERE?! With the shark?!’ And I told them to stay and watch!”
Burk proceeded to strap on all his dive gear and enter the water, when he saw all three girls with their six hands on the acrylic, waving like mad and in awe that he was swimming with a shark. He began cleaning and also picking up ejected shark teeth he found on the bottom of the exhibit, when he noticed the oldest child trying to get his attention. He realized she was pointing to a large tooth he had missed, so he swam over, picked it up and held his palm against the acrylic so they could all get a good look.
“Their eyes were so wide, it was so cute,” says Burk.
Burk finished his dive and then went back out to the Islands of Steel viewing area, where his rapt audience met him with squeals of awe and delight.
“They were hugging my legs and told me they were glad I was okay,” Burk says with a laugh, “So then, I pulled that tooth, the one the little girl had spotted, and showed it to them. They inspected it and touched it, and then I asked her if she wanted to take it home with her – she was beyond excited!”
Burk said they all hugged him, and the mother thanked him for such a great visit.
“They walked away with a great visit, and me, I still think about them to this day. That’s the reason why I’ve been doing this for so long. It truly never gets old.”
Meet ‘Diver Dennis’ every Thursday when he dives in our Islands of Steel and Flower Gardens exhibits!