TAMPA, Fla. - The sign on the wall says: "Welcome shark dinner divers!"
Dive master Katie Shoultz laughs and says, "We're all about the corny jokes here."
I'm at the Florida Aquarium getting ready for a shark dive. My photographer, Greg Wilson, will be diving with me to capture all the action with an underwater camera. The tank, and the sharks, are waiting. I'm ready to jump right in.
We begin, however, with a basic shark diving orientation with Shoultz and aquarium curator Eric Hovland. They say the sharks are used to divers in the tank and are fed regularly. Other than that, we're told, the animals will behave as they do in the wild.
"They will typically adjust their swimming patterns to go around us," Shoultz says. "But we don't train our sharks to do anything or behave in a certain way."
What this dive will show us, Hovland explains, is that sharks don't instinctively see people as food.
"They're aware of you," he says. "That's the best way to describe it. They're interested in you because you're something different in the water. From a distance they're going to eyeball you. They're going to look at you."
And basically what they're going to see is a skinny guy in a wetsuit. Which, apparently, makes me unappetizing to the sharks.
"Frankly, we're not fat enough," Hovland assures me. "The sharks can see you. The sharks are aware of you. You're not doing anything to threaten or corner them, or give them a reason to fear you."
Soon I'm donning my scuba gear and slipping into the cage. But this is not a cage dive. We're lowered into the water and, after a few minutes of surveying the underwater landscape, its shifting light, its steep walls, its nooks of life, we exit the cage into a world where only air bubbles break a Zen-like silence.
We find all kinds of creatures here. A playful turtle swims up the reef wall, paddling like a happy kid at summer camp. Next comes the barracuda, famous for its jagged, destructive teeth; it glides by me indifferently. What the heck do I have to do down here to get noticed?
Apparently some marine life is more curious than others. I learn this from an encounter with an eel. I've come across morays in the ocean before. Usually they hang back in the reefs, popping their heads out of their holes for an occasional change of scenery.
But, suddenly, here in the tank, I have one coming at me, aiming for my lap. It's like when my niece makes a beeline for me, a book in her hand, eager to be read to. This eel doesn't have a book. He's pickle green with bubbly eyes. And darn persistent. I open up, let him come close. He brushes by my chest, satisfies his curiosity and moves on. All the while, I'm conscious of the sharks circling overhead. They're astonishing. It's immediately clear I've stepped back into prehistoric time; these sharks have ruled the ancient oceans forever, gliding supremely, very aware of their might and their majesty.
A pair of Nurse sharks stays together, favoring the bottom, much as they do in the ocean. A Brown shark darts around, checking out the different depths; it's a lithe and unpredictable fish, playful but not completely fond of followers. And then there are the stars of the attraction: the Sand Tiger sharks, measuring up to 10 feet. There are several of them in here, and they look the most fearsome.
"The first thing you notice is a big mouthful or pointy teeth, numerous rows of teeth," Hovland says.
Yep. I see the teeth. But, as I dive around them, I also see how accommodating these sharks can be as hosts. Sure, they can be dangerous, but they can also be graceful, beautiful, and calming. I get so close to one of them, I can see the furry filaments inside their gills.
"Unless you provoke them or bait them or confuse them, you're generally-speaking in a safe environment," Hovland explains.
He says those so-called shark attacks we hear about are more likely shark mistakes. The sharks can mistake us for seals or other marine life that make up their diet.
"Sharks don't hunt people," Hovland insists.
"They figure out this is not a seal, you don't taste like a seal, I don't want this," Shoutlz adds.
"As far as what we usually see, like Black Tip sharks off the coast of Volusia County, they're looking for herring, looking for small fish. And that's when they might make a mistake, see something shiny or wiggly and go test it out, see what it is," Hovland explains. "But sometimes it's an ankle, or something dragging in the water."
Sharks may not hunt people, but people hunt sharks. Tens of millions of sharks are caught up in fishing lines or slaughtered outright for their fins every year (shark fin soup is considered a delicacy, particularly in Asian countries). That fact turns this marine world upside down. After all, with only 12 human fatalities worldwide every year from shark bites, it seems the oceans are much safer for people than they are for sharks.
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