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?
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 dive with the sharks 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.
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 cover feature 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.
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.
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.
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 GoPro, 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 Canon PowerShot S100 and Underwater Housing. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Curious what that looked like from my perspective?
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.
I was completely oblivious. However, in my defense, I kind of had other things to focus on:
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.
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.
But hey, that’s the adrenaline rush I was looking for when I hopped in, no?
The adrenaline rush — and close ups like this with one of the most fascinating creatures on the planet.
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 special experience to share with my Tampa ladies, who know how to make a fun day out of just about anything.
Jaws, you got me again.
Have you aquarium dived? Would you?
I am a member of the Viator Ambassador initiative and participated in Dive With The Sharks as part of that program. All underwater photos in this post were taken with Canon PowerShot S100 and its Canon PowerShot S100 Underwater Housing. See a full list of my photography gear here.