Raised in Brooklyn, where his father was a salesman in the paper and packaging industry, and his mother a housewife who later worked in medical offices in Manhattan, Cliff Hochberg had no more than an armchair interest in the aquatic world.
Cliff Hochberg graduated from Brooklyn College with a degree in elementary education before he realized he did not want to be a teacher. He instead embarked on a professional music career until his late 20s, when he realized that he wanted to be a chiropractor. Hochberg graduated from the New York Chiropractic College in Long Island in 1986 and moved to Plainsboro in 1988, where he has lived and practiced ever since. He operates Hochberg Chiropractic (www.drhochberg.com) in the Princeton Meadows Office Center.
Hochberg also serves as the officially appointed town crier of Plainsboro. He is one of only about 30 appointed town criers in the country and is also a member of the American Guild of Town Criers. And, as he told U.S. 1’s Scott Morgan, a chance visit to a New Jersey tourist destination rekindled that armchair interest in water sports:
My love affair with scuba diving probably started when I was a kid watching “Sea Hunt.” I was fascinated watching Lloyd Bridges roll backwards off that boat and into the ocean. I imagined myself doing the same thing, but being too young and growing up in Brooklyn, I didn’t really have the opportunity to learn.
When I got to college there was a class in scuba diving, but it was so popular it was always closed out. So I put the idea on the back burner for a lot of years. Then in 1996 I took my daughter to what was then the New Jersey State Aquarium in Camden. We saw the divers doing a show and somebody mentioned that they always need volunteers. A light bulb went off in my head. I thought, “I want to do that!” So I got certified.
I needed to log 25 dives before I could join the aquarium’s team, and in 1999 I finally did. Now I’m at the Adventure Aquarium every two weeks, swimming with the sharks, doing tank maintenance, helping take care of the animals, and performing shows for visitors.
It’s been great. I’ve been to Cozumel, Grand Cayman, the Bahamas, the Florida Keys, the Jersey Shore, Cape Cod. I’ve even been to the James Bond wrecks from “Thunderball” and “Never Say Never Again.” But the aquarium is so enjoyable that it really satisfies all my diving urges. I get to dive every two weeks in crystal clear water, in New Jersey, with 2,000 aquatic animals all around me. And I don’t have to schlep my own gear.
When my light bulb first went off and I told my wife I was going to get certified, she said, “You’re never going to dive with sharks, are you?” Nah. Of course not. There was no dedicated shark exhibit at the aquarium, but there was a shark tank and I would be in there with them. These days she’s fine with it, and believe me, the sharks don’t care about us at all. But when I was about to jump in with them that first time, I thought, “Why am I doing this? I must be nuts!”
Once I got in, I realized the beauty of it all. For me, as a diver, it’s almost meditative. To be breathing under water and having the opportunity to share an environment with these creatures is exhilarating.
I wouldn’t say it’s scary, despite what people might think. Sharks seem to bring out some archetypal fear in us, and I think the first thing people think of is “Jaws” and Peter Benchley.
But Benchley eventually became a great advocate for sharks and did a lot to protect them before he died in 2006. Even so, there are millions of sharks killed every year and very few people who are hurt by them. Sharks are in far more danger from us than we are from them. A curious thing happens when people find out you swim with sharks, though. You start getting shark books as presents. But that’s fine. I knew very little about sharks when I started diving but I’ve gained a lot of knowledge and a lot of great experiences.
Outside the aquarium, there are some spectacular sights too. Coral reefs are beautiful. They really are something to see. As you get deeper, the colors do fade, but they are especially beautiful when you’re night diving and your light hits the reefs and the animals. The oranges, greens, reds, and blues are just amazing.
I wouldn’t say recreational diving is strenuous, but you do have to stay in shape. There are currents to deal with, there is stress, and you can be carrying 50 or 60 pounds on your back. I stay in shape by walking three miles a day and by cycling 50 to 120 miles a week. As a matter of fact, I’ve been training for the Tour de Cure, which is a 100-kilometer fundraiser for the American Diabetes Association.
Safety is always a concern when you dive, of course. Buddy diving is very important, you have to stay close enough to each other at all times to help in an emergency. You need a dive plan — the depth you’re going, how long you will stay down, where you’re going, what time to be back up. You communicate a lot with hand signals and you learn emergency techniques to help each other back to the surface in the event of an out-of-air situation. I became a certified rescue diver a few years ago.
Back in the tank, it’s a little more under control, but you still have to be aware that you are in their world. We have a strict no-touch policy, and while we do hand-feed the stingrays, we feed the sharks from long poles from the surface because we don’t want them to associate divers with food. Sometimes it gets so familiar I get almost jaded. At times I have to look around and remind myself how privileged I am to be under water with all these different creatures.
Lang’s Ski & Scuba, 1757 North Olden Avenue, Ewing 08638; 609-538-1970; fax, 609-538-8954. Bob Lang. Home page: www.langsskiandscuba.com.
The Scuba Connection, Mountainview Plaza, Hillsborough 08844; 908-359-1050; fax, 908-359-1986. George Fish. Home page: www.tscscuba.com.