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My regulator in, and my fins dangling gingerly over the ledge, I watched as the dorsal fins of two sand tiger sharks cut across the surface of the water. I turned to my dive buddy, who gave me a questioning “all clear” signal to inquire if I was ready to take the plunge to join our toothy friends. I felt myself signaling back a confident “all clear indeed,” and I laughed at how far I’d come from a girl who was once paralyzed with fear at the mere hint of a Steven Spielberg score. We jumped in.

How did I find myself on this side of a shark tank?

Aquarium Diving in Florida

I’ve been lucky to have some pretty amazing experiences in my relatively short life as a diver. With lots of fabulous memories to live up to, I’m always on the lookout for some new way to push myself and to top that last wild aquatic rush. I didn’t really plan to do any diving on this trip to Florida, yet when I was browsing Viator for their offerings in the Tampa area, I immediately zoned in on the opportunity to at the Tampa Aquarium. Diving? With sharks? In a small enclosed area? Generations raised on Jaws might call such a thing crazy. Yet in the pursuit of wild adventure, new frontiers, and jealousy-inducing social media profile pictures, I bravely blazed forward.

When I mentioned the plan to my aunts, the ones I come to Tampa to visit, I told them they shouldn’t feel any pressure to take time off work, but they were more than welcome to come watch if they wished. I shouldn’t have been surprised when it quickly escalated into a full day extravaganza with an entourage of four. What are aunts for if not to spoil you with love and undeserved attention?

When the morning of truth finally arrived, we were a little giddy.

The Florida Aquarium, Tampa

The Florida Aquarium

We were greeted at the entrance to the aquarium like celebrities — which made sense when I later learned that Rihanna had been there shooting a Harper’s Bazaar just a month earlier. Obviously, the staff weren’t able to blab about it until the photos were released, which is a shame. I would have loved to chat with them about the logistics of a fashion shoot in a shark tank.

But we had plenty of other topics to discuss. Our first stop was to a small classroom, where the program director, an avid diver himself, told us about the goals of Dive With The Sharks. His job was pretty easy on this particular morning — I’ve been diving with several species in the wild already and despite the fact that the mere thought of dorsal fins made me afraid of swimming pools for the better part of two decades, today I’m a shark advocate through and through and my terror has morphed into a bizarre obsession or sorts. So I admire the program’s aim to dispel common misconceptions and myths about sharks, and to educate divers about the four sand tigers and two nurse sharks they’ll be sharing tank time with. While I didn’t need any convincing that humans pose more of a threat to sharks than vice versa, I really enjoyed the skeptical looks on my aunts’ and friends’ faces as they rebutted the program director’s arguments with factual evidence like scenes from Jaws III.

And then it was time to suit up.

Diving at the Florida Aquarium

Wetsuits at The Florida Aquarium

One bonus aspect of this experience is getting to go behind-the-scenes in the aquarium — I really got a thrill walking through all the normally inaccessible-to-the-public areas. I know! Such an outlaw!

In order to minimize the risk of outside contaminants, divers must use the aquarium’s gear, which is included — though you can bring your own mask and dive computer, which I did. (Sadly this meant no Swish Suit!) Accustomed to diving at backpacker-oriented budget shops, it felt like a luxury to have my whole kit set up for me.

Sharks at The Florida Aquarium

Shark Diving at the Florida Aquarium

After a thorough briefing of the thirty minute dive plan, my divemaster Erin and I were ready to go. We entered the water via a cage reminiscent of the ones used to dive with Great Whites in South Africa. Though Erin explained this was only to protect the tank residents lest we land on them, I found it a little unnerving. Those first seconds in the steel casing were the scariest part of the whole thing — well, almost. But I’ll get to that later.

The door swung open, and we were swimming freely in Shark Bay, the 93,000 gallon showpiece of the Florida Aquarium.

Swimming in the Florida Aquarium Shark Tank

Tampa's Florida Aquarium

Swimming in the Florida Aquarium Shark Tank

Well, swimming to and from our various observation perches, anyway. I was totally okay with this situation — some of my best wildlife observation dives have basically meant deflating and kneeling on the ocean floor for front row seats to one of nature’s greatest shows. Examples? Hangin’ with stingrays in Grand Cayman, and marveling over mantas on Big Island.

Our first stop was right up in front of the glass, in a cove-like corner of the tank. I waved excitedly to my aunties and then turned my focus to close encounters with barracudas, nurse sharks, and a giant sea turtle. The sand tiger sharks were distant overhead, but I was okay with that. We were easing into the idea of each other.

Typically, the only cameras allowed on this experience are hands-free, body-or-head-mounted , but considering my extensive dive experience (I’m a PADI Divemaster) and my reason for being there (I was covering the experience for Viator) I received special media permission to take my  and . And I’m so glad I did. I loved having both the macro view of me shooting, and the resulting micro view from my own camera. Like the below shot of me and the largest nurse shark I’ve ever seen getting up close and personal — followed by my perspective.

Shark Diving at the Florida Aquarium

Shark Diving at the Florida Aquarium

I absolutely loved looking out and seeing my entourage waving enthusiastically on the other side of the glass. And they were so well looked after! An aquarium attendant stayed with them the entire time and according to their report doled out the royal treatment — I think this is a really nice touch and seeing how well they were being looked after allowed me to totally relax and enjoy myself in the tank.

Tampa's Florida Aquarium

Shark Diving at the Florida Aquarium

Aquarium Diving in Florida

After ten minutes or so, we moved to our next location. This time, we were suspended at about half the depth of the tank, hanging off a ledge. I’d gasped when I saw it demonstrated in the pre-dive video, as touching coral in the ocean is such a major no no. Then it dawned on me that the coral in this body of water was of the artificial variety — yet I couldn’t shake the feeling I was doing something naughty as I gently rested one hand on the coral-ish shelf.

This time, we were a little closer to the action, with the sand tigers making a regular pass a few feet overhead — close enough for me to count their teeth.

Swim With The Sharks at The Florida Aquarium

Shark Diving at the Florida Aquarium

Shark Diving at the Florida Aquarium

Shark Diving at the Florida Aquarium

Swim With The Sharks at The Florida Aquarium

While I dangled, I reflected on what makes aquarium diving so appealing — it’s a popular activity in tanks everywhere from Denver to Atlanta.

For me, there were several draws. One is of the same vein that attracted me to submarine diving in Hawaii — I liked the science-y, mechanical side to it, not to mention the behind-the-scenes peek at the kind of institution that made me fall for the ocean long before I saw my first real coral reef. Another is, of course, the dependability. While the “you never know!” aspect of diving is a thrill, it was kind of cool to know I was guaranteed to get face time with four beautiful apex predators. And, finally, getting to share one of my passions with my non-diving family members in a really special way — that might have been my favorite bit.

Swim With The Sharks at The Florida Aquarium

The Florida Aquarium

Time flew in the tank and before I knew it we were moving to our final location. This one had us positioned between the observation tunnel and a tall reef shelf, meaning the sharks had to pass extremely close on their business-like rounds of the tank. WOW.

These sharks were getting cozy.

Aquarium Diving in Florida

Swim With The Sharks at The Florida Aquarium

Curious what that looked like from my perspective?

Swim With The Sharks at The Florida Aquarium

Yeah. So, despite the racks of teeth on those babies, I actually felt completely at ease for twenty-nine out of the thirty minutes I was in the tank. And that squirm-worthy sixty seconds? Well, I’ll show it to your first from my aunt’s perspectives, who were hysterically attempting to gesture to me that I was unknowingly fin-saulting a pissed off eel.

Shark Diving at the Florida Aquarium

I was completely oblivious. However, in my defense, I kind of had other things to focus on:

Dive With The Sharks at the Florida Aquarium

I love how you can see the progression in the below photos. In the first one I’m like, whoa, great angle! Love it! And in the next frame I’m like, hmm, that’s a little close, oh, wow, hey there, this is cozy, um — FORGET EVERYTHING I LOGICALLY KNOW ABOUT SHARKS PLEASE DON’T EAT ME.

Swim With The Sharks at The Florida Aquarium

Shark Diving at the Florida Aquarium

At the last minute, my fake-out friend did a bob and weave and left me to deep breathe into my regulator for a few moments as my heart rate returned to normal.

Dive With The Sharks at the Florida Aquarium

But hey, that’s the adrenaline rush I was looking for when I hopped in, no?

Shark Diving at the Florida Aquarium

Dive With The Sharks at the Florida Aquarium

The adrenaline rush — and close ups like this with one of the most fascinating creatures on the planet.

Dive WIth The Sharks at the Florida Aquarium

It was a fantastic experience. My only complaint about the day was the photos — I purchased the Storipass’s photography packaged for $69.99, which included a disc with all 170+ photos the photographer took of the day, a few video clips. When I looked back through again later, I realized there were maybe twenty useable shots — and those required heavy editing. The videos were a bust. And worse, there were supposed to be two posed dry land shots included, but only one made it’s way to me, and my emails about the other went unanswered. In my opinion, Storipass needs to either hire more experienced employees or lower their prices to reflect the quality of the product.

That aside, it may have been just a thirty minute dive, but I’ll be talking about this experience for a long time to come. I was really blown away by how professional and conservation focused the program was, and I was thrilled by my time spent underwater. Overall, it was such a to share with my Tampa ladies, who know how to make a fun day out of just about anything.

Jaws, you got me again.

Dive WIth The Sharks at the Florida Aquarium

Have you aquarium dived? Would you?

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I am a member of the Viator Ambassador initiative and participated in as part of that program. All underwater photos in this post were taken with and its . See a full list of my photography gear here.

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48 Comments...
  • Amy - Toothbrush Travels
    March 31 2015

    Ahh this looks so scary and exciting and nerve-wracking and amazing!
    Love, love, love that they took the time to educate about sharks.
    I’ve become completely obsessed with them lately and started following loads of shark conservation Instagram accounts – they’re such incredible animals! x
    Amy – Toothbrush Travels recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      March 31 2015

      They truly are. I’m absolutely gutted that Jawsfest isn’t doing anything for the 40th anniversary this summer — their last event was another great conservation, education funfest! Ah well. I’ll have to obsess about sharks some other time 🙂

  • Justine
    March 31 2015

    So cool! Almost as cool as being a mermaid for a day 😉 I’m sure I would be terrified to jump into that tank but I would do it if I had the chance (or so I like to think). I don’t know a lot about the common misconceptions and myths about sharks. Are sharks not as threatening to humans as everyone thinks? Also, I love seeing the sequences of photos from the different perspectives. I can’t believe how close you got to them. Amazing!
    Justine recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      March 31 2015

      Shark attacks on humans are statistically incredibly rare, Justine — I swear! They really are vilified in the media. And it’s a huge problem because sharks are seriously threatened and endangered around the world due to a (primarily Chinese, according to my understanding) obsession with shark fin soup, and it’s hard to rally support for an animal that gets such a bad rap as a man eater. However, sharks are apex predators absolutely crucial to a healthy reef and ocean ecosystem. Our seas won’t survive without them! And so any ocean lover really needs to rally into shark loving as well 🙂

  • Maddy
    March 31 2015

    This looks SO. COOL! Every diving post you post makes me thaaat much closer to trying it, haha. Then again, maybe I won’t sign up for any huge lessons yet – I went snorkeling in Puerto Rico and I definitely swallowed some salt water. I couldn’t get used to that whole Darth Vader breathing thing. 😉
    Maddy recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      March 31 2015

      I actually get far less salt water in my mouth when I’m diving than I do when I’m snorkeling! Something to think about! 😉

  • Silvia
    March 31 2015

    Your underwater photography really has gotten so, so good! I love the first photo of you in the water, haha.
    Silvia recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      March 31 2015

      Thank you Silvia! I think in many ways my editing has just become a billion times more painstaking, ha. But yup — I do look back on my early underwater shots and cringe. Guess everyone has to learn somewhere!

  • Ashley
    March 31 2015

    It’s so cool that you were able to have a behind-the-scenes look at the aquarium- I would have loved that! I also love that you smacked an eel in the face, ha! I would rather come face to face with a shark any day- eels are so creepy.
    Ashley recently posted..

  • wow, this is awesome! what an incredible experience!

    • Meihoukai
      March 31 2015

      It really was. Thanks for reading Haley!

  • Marni
    March 31 2015

    Once again your pictures are phenomenal and make me want to go out and learn to dive ASAP. Sharks are such misunderstood creatures, so it’s great to hear about a place that offers an informed experience with them.

    • Meihoukai
      April 1 2015

      Especially in a place like Florida, where I have a feeling that fear keeps a lot of people out of the water!

  • Awww, how sweet of your aunts to join you! Love both the photos you took as well as the ones giving an outside perspective. I just shared this with my office, haha. To Tampa we go!
    Adventuring The Great Wide Somewhere recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      April 1 2015

      Ha aw, thanks for sharing this post! That always means a lot to me. And yes, my aunts are the best!

  • Leah
    March 31 2015

    Yowza! I only once saw a shark while I was in the water, and I wasn’t even super close because I was snorkeling at the time. Still quite the adrenaline rush! I would LOVE to dive with sharks for real, in the ocean though preferably. Add it to the bucket list!
    Leah recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      April 1 2015

      Actually, I’d much rather see a shark on scuba than on snorkel. I still get nervous to swim in the ocean from the shore sometimes, though I’m basically fearless when I’m diving! And don’t get me started about surfing…

  • Miquel
    April 1 2015

    This. Is. So. Cool.
    I was blown away by the snorkeling I did on Koh Tao at Tanote Bay in January. I need to learn to dive!
    Miquel recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      April 1 2015

      Ah, lovely! Did you see black tip reef sharks there? It’s one of the best places to go looking!

  • Drew Seaman
    April 1 2015

    That looks amazing. I have a fascination with swimming with sharks, but haven’t taken the plunge yet. I like the aquarium idea option, as it is a more controlled environment but sand tiger sharks are still no joke. They look so mean. Thank god they let you use your camera, as your photos are great and give great perspective.
    Drew Seaman recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      April 1 2015

      I ALWAYS have more fun with my camera in hand 🙂 I think aquarium diving would be a really great way to get your feet wet (ha ha) with shark diving. Go for it!

  • Vera
    April 1 2015

    Wow!!! That seems like such an incredible experience. And so brave from you! I once divided with sharks when I was little but I don’t know if I would do it again now… By the way, the photos are so stunning! Everything looks incredible, and all those close ups of the animals, brilliant! Have a nice day,
    Vera

    • Meihoukai
      April 1 2015

      Thanks Vera! The orientation is very calming — being reminded that sharks are not aggressive towards humans and hearing the statistics to back that up is a nice reminder before you hop in a tank with them 🙂

  • Leigh
    April 1 2015

    Your underwater photos are magnificent! I clearly need to invest in better equipment!
    Leigh recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      April 6 2015

      Thank you Leigh! Lots of practice has definitely helped… I can’t stand looking at photos from when I first started, ha.

  • Amanda
    April 1 2015

    SO so cool. I LOVE sharks and this looks amazing. I really need to learn how to dive…
    Amanda recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      April 6 2015

      Yes you do! And then we can have a big ol’ girl blogger diver trip somewhere cool with Liz and the rest 🙂

  • Megan
    April 1 2015

    I snorkeled with nurse sharks at Compass Cay marina in the Exumas. It was the coolest thing that I have ever done. I know that nurse sharks are chill and not predatory but they still look plenty scary swimming right at you!
    Megan recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      April 6 2015

      Having just done the exact same yesterday in Belize, I have to agree! It’s a thrill when they swim by!

  • Aunt Karen
    April 2 2015

    Meihoukai! Hysterical but great storytelling writing as always! You covered it so realistically that we readers could feel your tank experience. And the fin saulting the eel! Could go on forever. All great shots. Had a ton of laughs. (And magazine packed but you are 100% topping Rhianna). Love you.

    • Meihoukai
      April 6 2015

      What a great experience, huh 🙂 Love you and thank you for being there!

  • Kat
    April 2 2015

    This experience looks fantastic! I love being able to see things ‘from the other side’ as it were and this seems so much fun (despite the fact I’d probably break down in tears every time one of the sharks came near me!)

    Slightly OT, but I’ve chosen to stop lurking today as I just wanted to say how glad I am to have found this blog. I stumbled across it a month or so ago, and am slowly making my way through the archives. I was having a bit of a low point when I found this site – I was planning a trip to the Middle East, but was struggling with money, I felt very stressed at work and with personal issues, and was panicking about travelling solo over there. For the first time in my life, going away felt like a hassle. I can’t describe why exactly, but I’d just lost that buzz I normally get from visiting somewhere new, to a point where I almost considered cancelling. This was the point that I started reading your blog and I can honestly say that the sense of excitement, adventure, and joy in exploring new places that comes across on all of your posts, it started to bring me back on the right side of the excitement/fear balance. I went on my trip (and loved it of course!) and have already been inspired to visit so many places that I’d not even considered before – Hawaii and Iceland in particular. And I have even booked a trip to Greece for the end of April based on your Athens posts!

    Also wanted to say it is also really nice to see someone who doesn’t mind staying somewhere luxury once in a while, or holidaying with parents on occasion – sadly I can’t do the latter anymore, but I was occasionally made to feel by some travellers that staying at a 5* hotel or going away with family somehow ‘isn’t real travel’. It’s great to see you embrace these things when you can.

    Omg so I appear to have written you a mini-essay (apologies – any future comments won’t be quite so wordy!) but basically I just wanted to say keep doing what you do, reading about your travels is really inspiring.

    • Meihoukai
      April 6 2015

      Kat, thank you so much for this lovely comment — I’ve read it over and over. It means so much to me to know Meihoukai in Wanderland is having a positive effect on others, because the community here has such a positive effect one me! And I am so excited to hear about your plans for Greece, and perhaps for Hawaii and Iceland as well (you’ve nailed all my favorites for sure!). Hope to hear from you again soon 🙂

  • tammyonthemove
    April 2 2015

    OMG, you crazy lady. I could have never done that. Looks like you enjoyed it though.
    tammyonthemove recently posted..

  • Camels & Chocolate
    April 2 2015

    Ahhhhh this looks like a blast. I hope to do it in Georgia with the whale sharks sometime in the future!
    Camels & Chocolate recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      April 6 2015

      I know that one is controversial but I am SO tempted to do it. Atlanta in general I’m just dying to return to.

  • becky hutner
    April 3 2015

    definitely filing this one under: only things i will experience through alex in wanderland x

  • Julie
    June 7 2015

    Thanks so much for sharing this activity. I dove with the sharks last week and had an amazing time! I completely agree about the photography package. I had about 40 pictures available to buy and absolutely NONE of me in the tank at all. I was really disappointed about that but I did have a GoPro with me in the tank so I got some great video/pictures from my perspective. Thanks for always sharing awesome activities!

    • Meihoukai
      June 8 2015

      That’s a bummer about the photos, Julie! Hopefully they up their game a bit at some point — like you said, it’s such an amazing experience that you really want to remember it beautifully! Did you first read about it here or stumble on this post after?

  • Vincent
    June 12 2015

    great articles and photos! we have had some incredible shark diving experiences in the Bahamas!
    Vincent recently posted..

  • Allan
    June 17 2015

    What a great story and tons of awesome images! I really enjoyed reading about this adventure. I hope you will also try the St. Augustine Aquarium (when it is ready) and post about your experience there. Can’t wait for our August trip to Florida so I can take more pictures for our website.

    Love your blog… bookmarked!

    • Meihoukai
      June 18 2015

      I’m always open to a little aquarium visit 🙂 Thanks for checking out my site!

  • sherise
    December 4 2015

    I laughed so hard! I love the way you write, I felt like I was the one in the tank. And I’m totally jealous.

    • Meihoukai
      December 6 2015

      Aw, thanks Sherise! You made me smile. Glad I could give you a laugh today!