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Aquarium In Tacoma To Let Visitors Dive In Shark Tank

By Ingrid Barrentine/PDZA

Beginning tomorrow Friday 10/11, an aquarium in Tacoma (Washington) will let paying visitors dive in a shark-infested tank. That's right.The Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium has built a dive cage in a tank that is home to 17 sharks. Experienced SCUBA divers can even swim out into the center of the pool.

Ah, the things you might question there's high demand for. Well, more than four hundred people have already made reservations to take a dip in a tank full of sharks. Cue the theme music from the movie Jaws, shall we?

But, not to worry says orientation instructor Heidi Wilken during a preview of the "Eye-to-Eye Shark Dive" program.

Heidi Wilken: "We've never had any instances of aggression from our sharks. We've done thousands of dives in this exhibit. So I would say you're very safe"
Tom Banse: When were the sharks last fed?
Heidi Wilken: "They are fed twice a week - Tuesdays and Saturdays. And you know, we are not prey items for them. In most cases where there are shark bites, it's a case of mistaken identity."

And with that, the dive staff helps me get into a dry suit and we go behind the scenes of the South Pacific reef exhibit. The spacious saltwater tank holds seventeen sharks of six different species, plus assorted smaller fish.

Credit By Ingrid Barrentine/PDZA

A swim ladder leads into the submerged dive cage. There's space for up to four guests. Cage divers breathe air from the surface through long tubes.

Sound pop: (diver officer helps guest into pool)

The water is warm. Sharks cruise slowly by, some as close as two arm lengths away. Before diving, Wilken told me to keep my arms inside the bars. "No petting the sharks," not that I'm inclined to.

Sound: (Darth Vader breathing sounds/bubbles)

After my breathing settles, the guide opens the underwater cage doors, wide open - to "improve the view." A sand tiger shark with a toothy grin glides by, focusing a beady eye on us. The biggest shark in the tank makes repeated passes - a nine foot, 450 pound lemon shark. Less intimidating companions include a bunch of nurse sharks and a blacktip reef shark.

Sound pop: (above water visitor interpretation)

Regular aquarium visitors can watch all these goings on through underwater viewing windows. The dive ends after twenty minutes of unmolested observation.
John Houck is deputy director of the Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium. He hopes shark dives generate buzz and eventually turn a profit for the aquarium. But he also says a primary goal for doing this is to build awareness of conservation and the overharvesting of sharks.

John Houck: "Many people think that sharks are threatening, obviously. But we believe that it is the sharks who are threatened by us - and our practices of harvesting in the oceans."

A few aquariums on the East Coast have offered shark dives for a while now. The Point Defiance Aquarium is the first in the Northwest to do it. A cage dive costs non-members $65, no experience necessary. If you're a certified SCUBA diver, you can swim out among the sharks with a guide for 175 bucks.