The shadow a shark casts on the ground as passes above you is much bigger than the shark itself, but just as terrifying as it is in the movies. In fact, it almost feels cinematic to watch the shadow’s tail twitch as it suddenly changes direction under your feet, while still giving only the vaguest hints about where the shark actually is: circling above you…somewhere. It’s easy to understand why film directors go to this scene when they need to create suspense for an impending shark attack.
That’s something I never thought I’d have firsthand knowledge about, but it was one of the takeaways from my Eye-to-Eye Shark Dive at Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium earlier this summer. My reptilian brain still had the same reaction to seeing a shark in front of my face that I’m assuming my ancestors had two million years ago: awe, followed instantly by concerns about my immediate safety. It didn’t matter that my reasoning brain knew I was safely inside an aquarium’s shark exhibit, in a cage, being guided by a trained professional on a tour that hundreds of people had taken before. It didn’t matter that I’d been given a lecture about each of the five species of shark I was to encounter, and the individual personalities of each of these 16 specific sharks in the exhibit. It didn’t matter that I knew that by almost any measure, humans are more of a danger to sharks than sharks to humans. Regardless of that, being this close to the ocean’s apex predator sent my pulse through the roof.
The actual underwater part of the dive lasts about 25 minutes, so I had some time to reflect on how disconcertingly easy it was to get to this place, underwater, in a cage with the door wide open (if everyone in the cage is comfortable with it – and in my case, we were), nothing physically separating me from these gray, living torpedoes of muscle, fins and teeth. I’d gone online, checked the shark dive calendar, made a reservation and entered my credit card information. It was a Level 1 Cage Dive, so it was only $75. I felt like it should cost more. Like getting a tattoo: if it doesn’t cost enough, you start to wonder about safety and quality. Those were my unfounded and illogical fears.
But I booked it, paid and immediately received an email that answered all my questions, including what I’d have to wear, which was another oddly informal part of the program: You just wear your street clothes, and the staff will put a warm sweatshirt over the top of your clothes and then tuck you into a dry suit so you never even get wet. I’m not saying one should have to wear a top hat and tails to meet a shark, but to just wear jeans and a hoodie on a bucket-list-level adventure somehow didn’t seem enough. But at least it was comfortable.
The experience itself was incredible, if a little chilly, so I’d advise people thinking about a shark dive to bundle up. I saw nurse sharks who had just eaten drifting lazily across the bottom of the exhibit. A sand tiger shark which was terrifying to look at, but ended up acting equal parts showboaty and goofy. The other, non-predator fish in the exhibit were surprisingly active and seemed as genuinely interested in what was going on inside the cage as my cage-mates and I were interested in what was going on outside. It was a flurry of openly gawking as the sharks swam less than a foot from the cage, posing for pictures and video from the staff’s GoPro (you can buy a shark-shaped flash drive with all the videos as you leave) and watching the crowds on the dry side of the exhibit glass as they gathered to watch us.
I’m not an experienced SCUBA diver, nor someone who overly appreciates sea life, so from my perspective the key word for this shark dive was balance. I got to see sharks in a new way, sharing their space and being face to face with their raw power. Watching one swim by you, knowing that she sees you with that one unfocused eye, it’s crystal clear that these creatures evolved through 400 million years to be the perfect predator. However, that’s balanced with the brief but passionate lecture the staff gave before we got into the cage about how sharks are being killed off in massive quantity for their fins. Having seen these sharks up close, and knowing that they kill for food (and almost never kill humans) when humans are slaughtering their entire species for some bland soup makes it more of a personal affront to me. In talking with people who have done the Eye-to-Eye Shark Dive, they more or less felt the same way, and that’s the purpose of the dive: To give your average zoo patron some skin in the game.
If you want to schedule your own Eye-to-Eye Shark Dive, visit their website, select your level (Level 1: Cage Dive is for ages 8+ with no experience; Level 2: Beyond the Cage is for ages 10+ who have completed a Level 1 dive; SCUBA Dive is for ages 15+ who have a diving certification) and click Learn More.