Reporter swept away by time with sharks at Tacoma zoo

Staff writerOctober 9, 2013 

The idea of getting inside a cage concerned me more than the sharks swimming mere feet away.

I’m addicted to adventure but usually in wide open spaces. Visions of stepping into a cage that would slowly lower me below the water rattled around in my head, dampening the excitement building about the underwater journey awaiting me at Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium.

All hesitation evaporated the instant I saw the cage being used in the new Eye-to-Eye Shark Dive attraction. It was sturdy and big – 12 feet wide and 10 feet tall – and already submerged in the water of the South Pacific Aquarium.

Now the fun could begin.

I signed a form acknowledging that sharks are wild animals and bad things can happen and I won’t sue if something goes wrong. I sneaked glances at a shark fin rising above the surface as head dive officer Gavin Wuttken went over safety instructions.

Then they handed me a fleece pullover and a dry suit. I’d chosen a thermal shirt and jeans for the dive, but the dive officers said I might get cold after 30 minutes in the water, even if it’s heated to 75 degrees.

It was the best piece of advice they offered. Even with the extra layer, I was shivering toward the end of the dive but reluctant to resurface.

Wuttken got into the cage first to help guide me down. I placed the mask on my face and practiced sucking in a breath or two. Then I began descending a ladder into the 13-foot-deep tank. I made it to the bottom, gave Wuttken the OK signal and turned to look at the brilliant yellow fish above my head.

Then I promptly floated back to the surface.

“It’s your bubbly personality,” assistant dive officer Heidi Wilken laughed as she grabbed another weight to help anchor me to the bottom of the cage.

Not wanting to take another chance of floating away, I grabbed the cage bars and lowered myself to my knees. All thoughts of focusing on breathing through a tube disappeared as my eyes focused on a sandbar shark cruising my way.

A school of nurse sharks napped in the corner. The lemon shark make a slow circle through the tank but gave me a wide berth. A handful of children waved at me from the aquarium’s viewing area.

My favorite was the golden Crevalle jack, a beautiful fish that continuously darted close to the top of the cage, clearly curious about what I was up to.

Above ground, Wilken tested the underwater microphone and began identifying the various species as they swam in front of me. It was hard for me to make out her words so I tried to quiet my breathing and blow out fewer bubbles.

I wish I’d retained more of what she said, but the overall experience swept me away, making it difficult to commit the names of fish to memory while marveling at their beautiful colors and close proximity.

Time passed too quickly, and before I knew it, I was hauling myself up the ladder and away from the intoxicating underwater world.

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