By Ashley Steel
“That was so cool!” declared my teen as she removed her mask and wriggled out of her sticky drysuit. It was high praise for a 14-year-old for any experience and, in this case, well-deserved.
Our shark adventure had begun six weeks earlier when I told my two kids that we might have the opportunity to swim with sharks at the Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium in Tacoma through its new Eye-to-Eye Shark Dive program (there are two options, we chose the cage dive, as we aren't certified scuba divers). We had watched Jaws on Cape Cod last summer and, more recently, Sharknado. The kids were scared. They were excited. They really, really liked telling their friends all about how they were going to swim with sharks.
Given all the shark hype and enthusiasm, tensions started building a few nights before the big dive. Big fish with teeth were going to be part of their reality. This shared anticipation of the event is absolutely part of the Eye-to-eye Shark Dive. The last thing my middle-schooler’s friend said as she left school was “Don’t get eaten!”
On the appointed day, we arrived in the backroom of the shark exhibit at the South Pacific Aquarium wearing fleece jackets and sweatpants, full of questions and nervous energy. We were asked to name three words that came to mind when we thought of “Sharks.” For me? “swim” (by now “swimming with sharks” was a household phrase), “fish” (trying to remain scientific), and “teeth” (I just couldn’t help myself).
We were given a short presentation about shark ecology. A few cool shark facts: They have been around since before the Age of Dinosaurs. They can live to be over 80 years old. Each of the six species of shark in the exhibit has its own personality tendencies – one species hangs out on the bottom like a cuddly pile of puppies, other species move very slowly, some smile a toothy grin, some have beautiful camouflage, and the sandbar sharks circle endlessly.
Next came a safety briefing. I was trying to concentrate but it was getting harder. I wanted to get into that tank! Luckily, the awesome Point Defiance staff seemed to have thought of everything, from a hair tie to wear in the tank to the more critical gear of weight belts and a regulator to supply air (cage divers wear masks and breathe surface-supplied air through a special mouthpiece).
Once we were suited up, we were soon all three moving slowly toward the ladder that led down into the tank. My 11-year-old headed down the ladder first, guided by our professional guide, a trained diver who stayed with us the whole time we were underwater. Then the teenager. Then me, the mom! At about this point, I was feeling pretty thankful that the staff seemed so calm and experienced because I needed to focus on my own underwater breathing, not my kids.
Don't forget to breathe
The only really challenging part of the experience was the interpretive presentation in the tank. I could see sharks and I wanted to hear the facts that were being broadcast seemingly underwater but, in order to hear, I had to stop the loud noise of my regulator, which meant not breathing. From the safety presentation one key piece of advice floated into my brain: “Rule #1: Always breathe.” Seemed so simple on dry land. Within a minute or two, I had it figured out. By breathing calmly and slowly, I could hear most of what was being said.
With all the logistics taken care of, it was time to enjoy the sharks. As the first sandbar shark headed directly at the cage, I stuck my arm right out and reached for it. So exciting! Argh, what was I doing? Do not reach out of the cage. But they’re so serene and beautiful.
At one point, a shark circled all the way around our cage, spinning me in a wide-eyed circle. The cage doors were opened and we could gaze, unobstructed, into the giant aquarium. The other fish were beautiful too and, to my delight, one of the little blue-striped cleaners had chosen the bar right next to me to guard as her territory and she just relaxed there, not eight inches from my face.
There were 17 sharks in all, including a 9-foot, 450-pound lemon shark! We were lucky to get a fantastic close-up view of the gorgeous Wobbegong shark. At the last minute, the blacktip reef shark made a grand appearance. Our 20-minute underwater experience went quickly but there really was time to gaze around and enjoy the company of these amazing creatures. We were all sad to climb the ladder and leave them behind.
In love with sharks
Back on dry land, the experience wasn’t over. The staff offered a dryer for any clothes that had gotten wet and even some conditioner for untangling the inevitable salty mess of long hair. And then they sat us down again. What did we think of sharks now? We were in love! This obviously was the point of the whole experience. Humans kill 4,377 sharks per hour. Per hour! Up to 25 million sharks are killed each year for a bowl of soup.
Many years ago, I had the opportunity to pat a fruit bat (this was also a program from the Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium) and it changed my relationship to bats. Bats are not scary at all, it turns out. They are adorable and personable.
Could these dedicated folks really do that for sharks, too? Apparently, yes. My kids lined up to sign a pledge to protect sharks, they were given a nifty souvenir, and we headed out full of stories from a fantastic adventure.
Later that evening, I took my daughter to pick out some giant shark gummy candies for a celebratory desert. I heard my daughter mutter under her breath, “stereotype!” “What?” I asked. And she pointed at the label of the candy with disgust - “Blue Killer Sharks.” She wasn’t having it anymore.
Tips on swimming with sharks …
When: The Eye-to-Eye Shark Dive opened in October and is planned as a permanent exhibit. Dives are possible Thursday–Monday, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Reservations are required. Make a reservation at pdza.org/dive. If you’re not sure yet if a shark dive is right for you and your kids, you watch a dive from the dry side of the exhibit.
Programs, age recommendations, and limitations: There are two different shark experiences available. We tried the “Cage Dive.” This is available for non-certified divers ages 8 and up. No prior diving experience is necessary. The entire program lasts about an hour with 20 minutes in the water. There is also a Scuba Dive for certified scuba divers ages 15 and up lasting about 75 minutes, with 30 minutes in the water. Both meet ADA accessibility standards. All participants must be under 275 pounds and in good health.
Costs: The Cage Dive is $50 for zoo members and $65 for non-members. The Scuba Dive is $160 for Zoo members and $175 for non-members.
What to bring: All gear is provided for both cage dives and scuba dives. The only personal equipment that is even allowed are prescription goggles. I was, however, very thankful I had brought a hairbrush!
What to wear: The drysuit zips right over your street clothes so you don’t have to wear anything special. We were happy to be wearing soft, warm clothing. The pressure underwater eventually plastered the drysuit against us and our warm, soft clothing provided a welcome buffer. Water might drip into the suit so know that everything you’re wearing might wet.
Shark dive as gift: If you're interested in buying a shark dive as a gift (hint: teens), you'll need to buy zoo gift cards and then use those to pay for the dive. Or you can go to the dive page and book the dive. (Call 253-591-5333 to buy a gift card.)
More at the zoo: There’s lots more to enjoy at the zoo! The polar bears are one of our family’s favorite exhibits. If they ever open an eye-to-eye polar bear swim, our kids will surely drag us in. Check out the camel rides. And Point Defiance's holiday lights display, Zoolights, lights up at 5 p.m. every night through Jan. 5 (you'll need to buy separate tickets).
About the author: Ashley Steel (and her husband Bill Richards, who helped edit this story) are Seattle-based parents and writers who recently published Family on the Loose: The Art of Traveling with Kids. Their book aims to expand cultural horizons and cultivate a generation of global citizens through travel. Their blog can be found at Family on the Loose.