SeaWorld shark dive not so scary

 “Cage goes in the water, you go in the water. Shark’s in the water. Our shark. Farewell and adieu to you fair Spanish ladies…” — Quint, “Jaws”

Laurie Sterbens in the shark tank at SeaWorld Orlando

This photo was taken by a SeaWorld Orlando employee from inside the Sharks Grill Restaurant during my Sharks Deep Dive in 2006. In the cage behind the flashed-out reef sharks, I'm the headless black smudge wearing a white helmet on the left.

Commercials on Discovery Channel this week are putting a toothy spin on an old Christmas song by touting Shark Week as “the most wonderful time of the year.” I love Christmas, but I have to admit that I really do look forward to Shark Week all year long.

Coincidentally, it was a Christmas gift that led me to my closest encounter with sharks so far. My husband, Scott, presented me with a gift certificate for the Sharks Deep Dive at SeaWorld Orlando. With the wrong kind of husband, this kind of gift might send you through the house looking for new insurance policies, but Scott is a good guy who just accepts the fact that he has chosen to spend his life with a serious shark geek.

I’ve always loved sharks despite spending most of my life in landlocked Arkansas. Oddly, my career path in newspapers led me to Daytona Beach, Fla., area, which you may have heard described as Shark Bite Capital of the World. It has occurred to me on more than one occasion that this could be either a gift from God or a clear sign that I am hurtling toward some bloody underwater destiny.

Actually, this Shark Bite Capital of the World business is a lot of nonsense. As big a fan as I am of Shark Week, it’s a little irritating to see an area hyped as super-dangerous when the truth is a lot of “attacks” are because an inlet that is a nursery for baby sharks is also a popular surf spot. Juvenile sharks mistake surfers’ feet for fish, which sometimes results in a bite wound that might get a bandage but doesn’t keep the surfers out of the water for long.

There have been more serious attacks in the past, of course, but honestly, I see a lot of tourists doing things that increase their risk — swimming in the early morning or evening, getting in water full of baitfish, swimming out too far. Years ago, before I lived in Florida, I visited Fort Walton Beach with a friend and she remarked one day, “I don’t go out past the sandbar. That’s where the big fish swim.” That stuck in my mind as a sensible policy.

Shark Soup by Laurie Sterbens for the Daytona Beach News-Journal

I wrote about my shark dive experience for The Daytona Beach News-Journal in 2006. Illustration by Marianne Koch.

Anyway, like I said, I’ve never even seen a shark here. Thus the desire to get into the tank at SeaWorld, where their Sharks Deep Dive was my best chance for seeing sharks close-up without having a scuba certification.

Despite having never been in the water with live sharks, my many years of shark geekdom and Discovery Channel addiction had left me slightly jaded. Aquariums are always full of nurse sharks, which seem like big catfish. (Although I’ve been watching a lot of “River Monsters” and I’m not sure I’d be all that comfortable in the water with a 10-foot catfish, either.) Another aquarium favorite is the sand tiger, which has a mouthful of menacing-looking teeth but seems kind of slow and guppylike to me.

I checked the International Shark Attack file before my dive and learned that the sand tiger was credited with 76 attacks on humans, 30 unprovoked and two fatal, between 1580 and 2005 and that the nurse shark was credited with 47 attacks — 10 unprovoked and none fatal. However, it was noted that shark attack figures are skewed to easily identifiable species, meaning that lesser-known sharks could be going around biting people and letting sand tigers take the blame. So, guppies and catfish or toothy terrors? I’d soon find out.

When I arrived at the Shark Encounter, I was taken into a brief orientation where I learned that the Shark Encounter tank included more than 50 sharks (the website now says 30) of various species, including of course, nurse sharks and sand tigers, but also blacktip reef sharks, whitetip reef sharks, saw sharks and Australian leopard sharks. Blacktips!, I thought. Now we’re talking! They’re not “Jaws” but they at least had “Open Water” cred.

After the orientation I donned a wetsuit and boots and entered what looked like a kiddie pool, where I was put into a white helmet, kind of a cross between old-fashioned deep-sea diver and Storm Trooper. This would allow me to breathe underwater and communicate with the SeaWorld staff member operating the cage or the staff member going into the cage with me.

I jumped down into the cage and there I was, surrounded by sharks. The cage isn’t like the shark cages you see on TV; the viewing area is clear plastic so you can’t stick your arm out like I probably would have done. The cage is attached to a track across the rear of the tank and slowly moves from one end of the tank to the other and back.

On the floor of the tank in front of me, I could see a tunnel where Scott was waving at me and trying desperately to take a photo with both me and a shark in it while navigating the moving sidewalk and trying not to knock people over. This was so amusing I was momentarily distracted from the sharks and just watched Scott. Later I saw him standing behind the window of Sharks Underwater Grill restaurant, where he was allowed to take photos alongside the SeaWorld photographer. None of the photos turned out that great, as you can see from the one I’ve included in this post. That was the official photo that we purchased.

As the cage moved slowly across the 125-foot tank, a 10-foot sawfish swam up to and over the cage, and large nurse and sand tiger sharks swam near the cage as well. The blacktip reef sharks and blacktips stayed farther away but did venture closer a couple of times, while the whitetip reef sharks napped on the bottom of the tank.

Despite being surrounded by large carnivorous predators, I found watching the gracefully swimming fish while listening to the aquarium sounds to be relaxing. The effect on me was less thrilling wild animal encounter than spa treatment, but that’s a good thing, too.

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Scuba Do: The Almost Undersea Adventures of Me

Laurie Sterbens with Jaws in illustration by Marianne Koch

This illustration by graphic artist Marianne Koch appeared with a March 30, 2006 story in The Daytona Beach News-Journal in which I described my dive into the shark tank at SeaWorld Orlando. In reality, I was standing in a plexiglass cage in the tank.

I have a tiny, barely noticeable but not imaginary bruise on my left shoulder. I got this injury in scuba class. Not as glamorous or exciting as a shark bite or the bends, but it does illustrate a fact about scuba diving that might surprise you: Scuba involves a lot of heavy lifting. They never show that on TV.

Scuba diving is a bucket list item for me, something I’ve wanted to do since childhood. I’m dragging my husband, Scott, along so he can be my dive buddy, though he has accused me of having him there to carry tanks and do the math. Yes, there is not only heavy lifting involved in scuba diving but math. They don’t show that on TV either. Little square-shaped problems that look suspiciously like algebra are used to determine how much nitrogen has accumulated in your blood and how soon and for how long you can dive again. I was born with an underactive math gland, so I’ll admit, having my husband along is helpful.

The heavy lifting occurs in the process of getting your scuba gear and tanks from your car to the dive site, which is apparently never anywhere close to where you have to park. In addition to a scuba tank or two that weigh about 50 pounds each, there is a bulky bouyancy compensator vest, or BC;  a weight belt that is about 10 percent of your body weight; an octupus-like configuration of hoses that attach to your tank; and your mask, snorkel and fins. All of this must be transported from the car to the dive site while, at least in this case, wearing a full wetsuit in 90-degree heat.

Like childbirth, however, once that part’s over with you forget how painful it was. Eventually we got into the water and the fun began.

We’re in the process of getting our open water diver certifications from Spruce Creek Scuba in Port Orange, Fla. Having already completed our written test and pool session, we ventured out last weekend for our first open water dive at Alexander Springs near Astor, Fla., which features crystal clear, 72-degree water and a pretty little picnic area. The spring is occupied by freshwater fish and turtles and there is rumored to be a small alligator, but on this summer Saturday the spring was primarily occupied by wall-to-wall swimming children. Navigating our way through the water was like being the underwater camera in the beach scene from “Jaws.”

In fact, I didn’t get to see the alligator or even a turtle. The most memorable sight from my dive happened as I was kneeling in about six feet of water watching our instructor, Brett, and Scott practice a skill. A very large — and by that I mean wide — boy with a serious case of “plumber’s butt” swam just above Scott’s head. I was wishing I knew a hand signal for “Hey! Plumber’s butt above!” when another kid swam up behind the first boy and pulled his swimsuit down to his knees. I really hope my diving future includes enough exciting scenery to knock that visual out of my head.

After we got the “okay” sign from our instructors for performing a variety of skills such as clearing our masks, sharing air and removing our BCs underwater and putting them back on, we did a “follow the leader” dive around the spring. Ideally, this would be an underwater tour in which the experienced instructor led us smoothly around and pointed out each feature as we nodded in rapt attention and absorbed the wonder of it all in Discovery Channel perfection. The reality was about a dozen divers bobbing around and bumping into each other at every depth level as we clumsily struggled with our bouyancy and balance.

Eventually our increasingly orderly school of divers made it around the spring and back to the shallows, then back up to the picnic area to do our math homework. Scott and I had packed sandwiches and eagerly devoured them after a morning of lifting, swimming and more lifting. You don’t see a lot of obese scuba divers; now we know why.

We have one more dive to complete before we’re certified. After that, I’m looking forward to a lifetime of underwater adventures.

Back to “Jaws”: Check out this hilarious short animated film, “Jaws in 60 Seconds.”