It's not every day you get to venture into a shark tank. But Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium makes it fun and easy with their underwater cage dive (no experience necessary).
Kids ages 8 and older, along with their parents, can get up close and personal with the zoo's 17 sharks by immersing themselves in the 240,000-gallon South Pacific Aquarium as the resident sharks' fins wave closely to and fro.
My 9-year-old son and I took part in this exhilarating experience on a day he had off from school. We headed into the exhibit intrepidly, not knowing exactly what to expect.
The whole experience takes about one hour. Upon arrival, one of the guides talks about what you will see in the exhibit – there are six species of sharks – and you learn about their warm (75 degrees), "outer reef" environment. You get the rules (don't touch the sharks or fish) and the appropriate hand signals to communicate underwater.
Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium
Up next is the multipart process of getting waterproof. The zoo supplies dry suits that go right over your clothes; only your hair and face get wet. The neck pieces were snug, and my son seemed a bit uncomfortable. But our guide told us that once we got in the water, we wouldn't notice the suit at all. Boy was she right.
Four people dive at a time – adults go in first – and a diver guide helps things along. The most nerve-racking part for me wasn't the sharks; it was taking in air through the breathing apparatus. I was like an aquatic Darth Vader at first, but as my body relaxed, my breathing did too, and I was able to glide down to the bottom of the cage and enjoy the view. My 9-year-old son felt the same way, but once we were comfortable we kept looking at each other with wide eyes and double thumbs up.
The sharks swim around casually, checking you out in the cage. Some rest at the bottom of the aquarium. It's tantalizing when they swim right by or underneath the cage. These massive beasts are graceful, striking … not at all what we glean from the movie Jaws.
My son and I particularly liked the sand tiger shark, which has so many teeth it can't close its mouth all the way. This shark will give your heart a jump when it's facing you in all its glory. The small blacktip reef shark was neat looking. And the lemon shark, a whopping nine feet long and colossal 450 pounds, is the "matriarch" of the group.
During the dive, one of the zoo staff talks to the divers and also the people in the viewing area. She points around the aquarium with a long, camera-tipped staff, which films the experience (you can buy this on a shark-shaped flash drive for $32.99). We could only hear half of the talk, however; the half that wasn't muffled by our exhaled bubbles. The flash drive footage includes the dialogue and a cameo for each diver, waving into the camera.
At the end of the dive, if all four divers give the OK, the cage doors are opened and you get time to view the sharks without the bars. This is hands down the best part of the experience; an unimpeded view of the exhibit makes you feel a part of it. Aside from the breathing racket, it is a serene experience, even with our pal the sand tiger shark eyeballing us.
After the dive, and after you've wriggled out of your dry suit and mopped up the sea water from your hair with your souvenir towel, you talk about conservation. I appreciate this part of the program, as many shark species are endangered. In fact, 25 million sharks are killed by humans to every one fatal shark attack (say no to shark fin soup!). You also get to explore whether you feel differently about sharks after being up close to them.
A couple of tips if you do the dive: Leave plenty of time to park and get through the busy admission lines. Dress warmly and comfortably for the dive; at the end of 20 minutes in the water, both my son and I were starting to get chilled. (The zoo has fleece sweatshirts and sweats on hand for borrowing.) Check out the helpful Frequently Asked Questions webpage for preparation details. Leave a camera with someone in the viewing area; there are some great spots to take photos of the cage divers. Take some time to explore the zoo later, as the dive fee includes zoo admission.
My son thought the dive was "fascinating" and "a great opportunity." He couldn't wait to take his shark flash drive to school to share it with his classmates.
IF YOU GO
Where: Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium, 5400 N. Pearl St., Tacoma. Meet outside of Stingray Cove 15 minutes before your scheduled dive time.
When: Cage dives occur most Mondays, Thursdays and Fridays; weekend options are available during summer months. Check the website to learn more.
Age Recommendation: The cage dives are for those ages 8 and older; there are also scuba opportunities for certified divers ages 15 and older.
Cost: The cage dive is $50 for zoo members and $65 for non-members. All of the gear is supplied. These prices include zoo admission and a souvenir towel.
Contact: 253-591-5337; www.pdza.org.
Taryn Zier is website editor at Seattle’s Child and loves her job: She and her kids have been indoor skydiving, raw oyster tasting, trampoline flipping and, now, cage diving with sharks.