This week I turned 42. To celebrate, my two thirteen-year-old boys and I seized the day and visited the Point Defiance Zoo in Tacoma, Washington to dive with sharks. I’m a certified diver, so the idea was not terrifying to me. The last time I was in the ocean with a shark, I was diving at Michaelmas Cay in the Great Barrier Reef. I got close to a four-foot black tip reef shark. I absolutely loved that, and couldn’t wait to get in the water with something a little bigger.
My kids weren’t sure about joining me at first. They’re great swimmers, not at all afraid of the water, but sharks? The idea gave them pause. So, I did what any good parent would do—I begged, pleaded, and manipulated them until they said yes. I’m kidding…sort of. We talked about the experience and risks, and I assured them they’d be okay.
When we got to the zoo, we checked out the aquarium so the boys could see the sharks before we got in. They were a little bigger than we expected. The sand tiger shark was over ten-feet-long, and with a mouth full of ragged teeth, he looked intimidating. The boys weren’t scared though. Due to my obsession with sharks and their own love of animals, they knew that sand tigers were docile—more puppies than monsters.
The cage-diving experience at the aquarium is set up to accommodate those with little or no experience diving. We would wear our street clothes under dry suits, so just our heads, hands, and feet would get wet. We wouldn’t have to use tanks. Instead, air would come to us through long hoses. All we had to do was follow directions, kneel at the bottom of the cage, and breathe. We were given a presentation beforehand about what the experience would be like, and what kind of sharks we’d encounter. The aquarium has five species of sharks in their large tank: the sand tiger, nurse sharks, sand bar sharks, a black tip reef shark (just like my Australian friend), and a wobbegong, a kind of shark that lies on the bottom of the ocean. The zoo also has a zebra shark which will be introduced to the big tank in a few years, once she grows bigger. Zebra sharks really are sea puppies—seriously adorable and kinda goofy. They like belly rubs too.
We were told that if we were comfortable, our safety diver would open the cage during our dive, so we could get even closer to the sharks. We were warned, however, that one of the sand bar sharks had a habit of swimming right up to the cage, like she was going to come inside. “She’ll veer off at the last second, though,” our dive instructor said.
We dressed up like aquanauts and donned our masks. After slipping regulators in our mouths, we sank to the bottom of the cage, wide-eyed and excited as we watched the sand tiger and black tip reef shark glide past. During the middle of the experience, the safety diver used hand gestures to ask if we wanted the doors open. We all gave her the okay signal right away. Heck yes, we wanted the cage door open. Let’s do this thing.
Then, across the tank, I saw that sand bar shark coming. My eyes were locked with hers as she swam right up to us, no fear. She got within a foot of one of my sons’ faces before switching directions. I looked over at him and used hand signals to see if he was okay. He nodded, grinning underwater.
After the dive, I asked him if he’d been scared. “Not at all,” he said. He’d felt a rush of adrenaline, and actually wanted to get closer. He had to keep his hands on the bars of the cage to resist reaching out and touching the shark. You and me both, kid. You and me both.
I think we’ll be coming back to this zoo, for another round with the sharks. Maybe next time, all three of us will be certified, and we’ll be able to leave the cage to sit on the bottom of the tank as the sharks swim around our heads. In the meantime, I’m thrilled to know my boys have developed a love for sharks and a new appreciation for nature. This was the best birthday I’ve ever had.
© Melissa Eskue Ousley 2017
Water has always enchanted me. I adore swimming and I love everything about the ocean, even the sharks. I attended Sea Camp my senior year of high school, and ever since, I had dreamed of becoming a scuba diver. Many years later, when I worked for the University of Arizona, the recreation center offered a scuba diving course, with several sessions in the pool and a trip across the border for the open water certification.
I leapt at the opportunity, even though it meant finding a babysitter for my twin boys, who were in preschool, and piling into a van with the instructor and a bunch of college students I didn’t know, who were much younger that me and in better shape than I was. The trip started out great—a few hours’ drive to where the live-aboard boat was docked, and then a ride out to San Pedro, where we’d dive.
The island was a barren rock in the middle of the sea, several hours from the marina. Sea lions lounged on the boulders at the base of San Pedro, and we could hear them barking at night. During our dives, they would swim with us, zooming over our heads. I also saw a moray eel and all kinds of fish. It was an incredible experience.
Our first few dives were without incident. We knelt on the sandy bottom about twenty feet underwater and practiced clearing our masks. We increased our depth during each dive, practicing navigation skills and hand signals. In between dives, we took a couple of kayaks and explored the island. The sea lions would swim right up to us, popping their heads out of the water to check us out. Finally, it was time for our most challenging test: sharing air.
The exercise is simple. You take a breath from your regulator and pass it over to your dive partner. Your partner sticks it in their mouth, takes a breath, and gives you the okay signal, showing that they’ve got air. Then you reach back and grab your backup regulator, stick it in your mouth, press the purge button, and voila! You’re breathing again. No sweat.
We’d practiced this exercise in the pool at the university, and the hardest part was psychological—not panicking while holding your breath. I was mentally prepared for the challenge. What I wasn’t ready for was an equipment failure forty feet below the surface.
I was partnered with my instructor, and the first part of the exercise went as planned. I took a breath and handed off my regulator. He stuck it in his mouth and gave me the okay signal. I reached over, grabbed my second regulator, and stuck it in my mouth. Then I pressed the purge button.
Instead of air, I got a mouthful of saltwater. I might have been able to spit it out, if I hadn’t been so caught off guard while trying to hold my breath. I swallowed the water and pressed the button again, desperate for air.
Nothing but seawater. My lungs burned, and I began to feel light-headed. I swallowed the water again, staving off panic. I tried once more, pressing the purge button…but there was no air. I swallowed yet another mouthful of saltwater. Detached from my growing horror, I thought, “Oh. This is how I’m going to die.”
I pressed the purge button one more time, and finally, there was blessed air. I gave my instructor the okay signal, and then a thumbs-up, communicating that I wanted to go to the surface. When we reached the top, I ripped the regulator out of my mouth and took a deep breath. It felt amazing to simply breathe.
I dove again soon after the incident, even though the saltwater I’d swallowed made me want to vomit. I was worried that if I didn’t, the fear I’d experienced would dominate me. I couldn’t let that happen.
Scary as not being able to breathe was, it made getting my certification even sweeter. Now I know what to do if my purge button sticks. Rather than swallowing a mouthful of seawater, I should have spit it out and started for the surface at the first sign of trouble. The incident was terrifying, but I learned an important lesson.
© Melissa Eskue Ousley 2015