Field Trip: Swimming with Sharks at Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium
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.