The thought of being submerged in a confining water tank with sharks seemed like the ultimate adrenaline rush. So when I found at that I could enter a shark tank at Manly Sea Life Sanctuary near Sydney, Australia and do such a thing I knew I had to do it. Despite having what I’d call a “reasonable fear” of sharks, I felt like this would be something that I would remember for forever. So a few friends and I booked our day with the sharks and this is how it went.
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Day of the shark dive… annnnd I’m sick
The morning of the shark dive I woke up in sweats and with severe coughing and sneezing. This was the last thing I needed because the instructors actually stated that they would kick you out of the tank if you’re coughing and sneezing. (Those two things don’t mix well with SCUBA breathing devices). So to keep me from coughing during this half-hour “dive” I drugged myself with cough syrup (non-prescription I think) right before I entered the tank. And just in case you’re wondering, there’s no rain-check for the shark dive. I paid in advance and the only option other than me losing my money was to find someone else who would pay to dive in a tank with the sharks and that’s not generally something that happens everyday.
They instructed us to show up at the aquarium about an hour beforehand for training and instructional videos. The videos provided us with basic safety advice and also showed us how the instructors would be communicating to us via hand signs. These hand signs were usually just gestures asking you things like if you are okay but some literally meant “hey, there’s a shark behind you.” They are all pretty simple and self-explanatory so we didn’t have to learn anything extensive. Once the video was all done we were ready to head to the changing rooms and put on all of the gear.
That water temperature, though…
Because we did this during the Australian winter the water was freezing (at least 60ºF/15ºC) and they gave us additional wet suit gear like hoodies, gloves, and thick booties to keep us warm. In order to allow our bodies to warm up faster and reduce the shock of the cold water the wet suits they gave us were already wet (and cold). Each layer of SCUBA equipment just seemed to add to the coldness and I couldn’t wait to just get into the cold water to warm myself up. After strapping on extra layers of vests, weights, and the tank, we were finally ready to enter the “training pool.”
The training pool is basically a small swimming pool that happens to be connected to a tank with sharks in it. As we entered the water it was cold but not nearly as bad as it would have been without the wetsuits. The instructors had us go through a series of tests to ensure that we knew what we were doing and knew how to work the breathing apparatus. If you’ve ever done an introductory SCUBA course, you know what drills I’m talking about (blowing water out of your goggles, locating your respirator, etc.). Finally, once you’ve proven yourself to the instructors they go over all the hand signs one last time, take a lovely group photo of everyone, and then you are ready to enter the tank!
There’s an opening on the side of the pool where you swim through and then set yourself up on an underwater platform. Once everyone is out you then drop off the platform and you’re officially in the tank and ready to see some sharks, except there’s even more build-up. The area of the tank with the sharks is actually on the opposite side of this big tank so you have to hop like an astronaut over to that area. It’s a little difficult to walk with all the equipment but manageable. At one point, we actually had to hurdle over the viewing tunnel beneath us to get to the other side. The staff assisted us through the whole process and it was actually pretty fun and will make you feel as if you’re undergoing NASA training.
Those couple of minutes heading to where the sharks reside are like the calm before the storm. All you can hear are the respirators and there’s tons of little fish darting around and even a few sea turtles passing by. One thing you won’t miss is the giant stingray lying on the floor. This thing looked as big as a Volkswagon and had multiple barbs sticking out with the largest looking to be at least a foot long. Still, it’s a rather peaceful experience as you make your way through the tank, waving at your friends along the way through the viewing tunnel.
Once you’ve hopped around the aquarium for a few minutes, you’re finally in the sharks’ lair. The instructors then line you up along the side of the viewing tunnel. You’re basically standing on a small ledge with your hands on the glass in front of you. With all of the weighted equipment you must be careful and not lose your balance. The staff told us some pretty hilarious stories of people falling onto their backs only to be helplessly stuck. I wasn’t about to let that happen to me so I made sure to keep solid footing.
The first sights of the sharks
I had the privilege of being the one on the outside of the line, furthest into the shark area. For some reason the instructor assumed I was the mastermind behind our visit to the shark tank and decided that I’d enjoy the position closest to the sharks. After only about five seconds of standing up on the ledge I saw the first shadowy figure begin to drift towards us. It was one of the biggest, (perhaps the alpha?), Grey Nurse Shark in the tank and I could almost hear the Jaws theme song playing in my head. I’m not gong to lie to you, as soon as I saw it drawing near, s*** got real and I got a little anxious. My adrenaline was rushing and the whole thing just felt surreal. I couldn’t believe that an actual shark was slowly approaching me and there wasn’t a cage, wire, or anything between us — just water.
For some reason I felt the need to hold my breath as the shark coasted nearer and nearer. As many of you know, holding your breath during a SCUBA dive is a big no-no. I’m pretty sure it was just my natural reaction to the thought of the shark going rogue and biting my face off. After the shark was right in front of me I finally got the courage to look the shark in the eye. When I made eye contact with the shark, almost instantaneously the shark’s jaw popped open a few inches. “Nope,” I thought and looked away. But as I looked away the situation became more dynamic. As soon as that shark started to pass by me, I spotted another shark coasting in. And then another. And then another. Within minutes, sharks were roaming above, below, and everywhere in between me.
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Some of the sharks were much smaller, with pointier snouts and a bit less menacing, but all of them had the infamous Nurse Shark jagged teeth that just scream “I can eat you if I wanted” (they really can’t but still). After seeing the third or fourth shark, it was clear that the swarm was officially on and these curious beasts were out to investigate us foreigners.
I kept reminding myself that these weren’t “man-eaters” to keep myself calm but there were a couple of problems with that: 1. it’s easier said than done when you’re surrounded by circling sharks of any type and 2. the googles cut off your peripheral vision so that the sharks constantly sneak up on you from the side. This is especially true if you are the one furtherest into the shark territory as I was. In the photos below you can see me looking right at the camera one second and then startled by a shark suddenly appearing in my line of vision. (This is one reason you definitely want to pay attention to the signals coming from the instructors.)
Brushing shoulders with a shark
One of the weirdest things about the entire experience was the few times that I think the shark fins scathed my head/shoulder. I’m still not 100% sure if it was a shark, fish, instructor playing some kind of sick joke, or perhaps me just being a bit paranoid but once or twice I felt a gentle brush on my shoulder/head area. It wouldn’t surprise me if it was a shark each time because of how close they got to me each time they cruised on by.
Needless to say, the first few minutes took quite the adjustment in order to settle my nerves and get comfortable. But after a few minutes, I began to relax and finally began to breathe a little easier. I realized that these sharks weren’t beasts out to collect their dinner, they were just curious creatures like just about every other aware and living thing on earth. And not only that, but the sharks were beautiful. Sure their teeth are pretty atrocious and their eyes are nothing short of terrifying but their fins and bodies are a brilliant silver color underwater it’s quite the sight to see.
Also, you don’t realize how graceful sharks are until you’re underwater right next to them. They just coast on by effortlessly with their giant bodies. By about the 15-minute marker, the sharks and I might as well have been best buds going for a dip. I didn’t seem to be bothering them at all and they weren’t bothering me at all. Now sure you could argue that these sharks have been conditioned to be peaceful when presented with humans and that’s perhaps a valid point but there’s still something to be said about having such a harmonizing experience with sharks, albeit in captivity.
Anyway, once we got acclimated to the sharks, my friends and I were waving happily at the spectators (and our friends) in the underwater viewing tunnel. The staff (which are awesome by the way) were also doing a great job of panning around with their underwater camera getting some awesome shots and video of us with the sharks. At that point, it was getting better by the second but before I broke out into my victory dance I started to shiver due to the cold.
And the cold returns…
Remember, I was battling a severe cold that day and about 20 minutes into the dive the temperature was starting to get to me. The shivering started with just my hands and then worked its up to all of my arms and legs. It was even a little difficult to breathe (though the gallon of cough syrup I had may have had something to do with that). I knew that getting into the cold water of the shark tank when I was so sick wasn’t exactly smart, but I wasn’t about to cut my time short with the sharks.
Finally the time was up. As we were ushered back to the other side of the aquarium and back into the changing area I was on what some would call a “natural high.” While high on life, I was pretty low on temperature. Luckily, they offer you a nice hot shower upon exiting. And let me tell you that hot water feels like heaven. That was probably the most enjoyable shower I’ve ever taken and trust me if you do this during the winter time you will love every second. After the shower we gave back our wetsuit gear, collected our CDs with video and tons of photos from our dive, received our shark dive certificates, and then were off on our way back to Sydney.
On the way back, I had some sort of hypothermic reaction and my temperature shot up extremely high. Incessant shaking was followed by a bad dose of the sweats and a temperature rising well over 100ºF. I didn’t get any sleep that night and certainly felt like crap the next day. However, there isn’t any part of me that feels that this experience wasn’t worth every penny and bit of healthiness it took from me. Being able to come into contact with the sharks and coming away with a new sense of appreciation for these animals was priceless. Sure, I’d prefer to have been out in the ocean with these creatures in their natural habitat, but at that time, it felt good enough just to say that I survived the “shark tank.”
Daniel Gillaspia is the Founder of UponArriving.com and the credit card app, WalletFlo. He is a former attorney turned travel expert covering destinations along with TSA, airline, and hotel policies. Since 2014, his content has been featured in publications such as National Geographic, Smithsonian Magazine, and CNBC. Read my bio.