Reviews of bucket-list-worthy things to do all over the world

Shark dive!

The cage door swung closed. Cold metal bars surrounded me. In a few minutes, the cage would be completely submerged in the water below. I looked down and saw sharks swimming and circling.

“Are you ready?” the divemaster asked. I hesitated. Any affirmative response seemed illogical.

“Yes!” shouted my twelve year old brother. I nodded, hoping for the best.

It had been years since I’d first stepped into a “shark cage." I was at a travel show. A company specializing in shark dives had a shark cage on the showroom floor. I stepped inside and imagined sharks swarming around me. My little brother would love this, I thought. The fact was, I would love it too.

A few years later, my brother and I arrived at Atlantis Marine World Aquarium (now known as Long Island Aquarium and Exhibition Center) in Riverhead, New York, with reservations for "Shark Dive," a plunge into a tank filled with scary-looking sand tiger sharks (Carcharias taurus).

Before our dive, we explored the aquarium. We "pet" the velvety southern stingrays (Dasyatis americana) in “Ray Bay”, a large shallow pool. I stared, mesmerized, at the “Coral Reef” exhibit, full of live coral and teeming with colorful fish. It looked like a scene out of the Disney movie, Finding Nemo. Then, we went by the “Lost City of Atlantis Shark Exhibit."

As we entered a faux cave and looked through the large windows at the gliding sharks, eerie music from the movie, Jaws, floated through the air. We walked upstairs to take in the view from above the tank. While we were peering down into the water, a shark skimmed the surface, his dorsal fin sticking ominously above the water. Nearby, I could see the empty shark diving cage awaiting the sharks' first victims… uh, I mean visitors.

We signed in for our shark dive and each received a souvenir towel and a shark tooth. Our guide told us about the sharks that we were going to meet, then the divemaster, who would accompany us on our dive, briefed us on our equipment. Each of us would wear a full face mask during the dive. A special communication system inside our masks would allow us to talk to each other and to our guide who would be perched above the tank, watching us. The divemaster explained how, after we were safely inside the cage, we would be gently lowered down into the tank.

Then I asked the question that had been haunting me, “What happens if the cage gets stuck down there?” The divemaster explained that there was plenty of air in the tank secured inside our cage, so there would be time to work on the problem, but, in an emergency, there was a hatch on top of the cage. He would open the hatch, remove our masks, and we would swim to the surface. I hoped that it wouldn’t come to that.

Since only two guests dive at a time and there were eight people diving that day, we were assigned times for our dives. My brother was thrilled to have the first time slot. I would have preferred to watch another pair dive first, but maybe it was better that I didn’t have a chance to reconsider.

In a backstage restroom, we changed into our bathing suits and pulled thick rubber wetsuits over each leg and up our bodies. Then the divemaster attached weight belts to our waists and ankles to keep us firmly planted on the cage floor once we were underwater.

After a souvenir photo was taken of us inside the cage, the cage door was secured. The divemaster helped us put on our masks. The cage moved out over the shark exhibit and then slowly descended. I felt the COLD water slip under my wetsuit and hoped that my body heat would be able to warm it to a more tolerable temperature. When the water was at chest level to my brother, the cage stopped moving.

The divemaster had explained, during our briefing, that this would happen. It was time to test our equipment before we submerged completely. The divemaster asked us to kneel on the floor of the cage and try out our masks. I lowered my head under the water’s surface and felt a pang of fear. I surfaced quickly. The divemaster told me that we wouldn’t submerge the cage until I felt completely ready. Reassured, I slowly lowered myself to my knees.

“Concentrate on the fish,” he suggested. I did. And there were lots of them, shiny silver ones and bright yellow ones, and a cool lime green eel. Within a few minutes, I was ready to take the plunge.

The cage submerged. Concentrate on the fish, concentrate on the fish, I told myself. Suddenly, a large, sleek shark with a gaping mouth filled with rows of pointy teeth swam close. For some reason, I wasn’t afraid.

The shark circled our cage, checking out the new feature in his exhibit. Other sharks followed. They seemed to be just as curious about us as we were about them. The sharks swam so near that we could have reached out and touched them. Of course that was strictly forbidden for obvious reasons. In fact, there was an inner red and white striped handrail for us to hold on to, rather than holding the outer cage bars. Even so, the scene was so intoxicating that at one point I actually did need to remind my brother to keep his hands inside the cage.

Fish swam close by, but, although many of them could have easily slipped through the bars of our cage, none of them joined us inside. The shark tank’s three hundred pound loggerhead sea turtle (Caretta caretta), named Jaws, swam close enough for us to see him, but maintained his distance. We were told that he’s a bit shy.

The highlight of my dive came toward the end of our time in the water. One of the male sharks approached our cage. This time, he swam close to my face and looked directly into my eyes as he glided slowly past. I am no expert on shark behavior, but my instincts told me that he wasn’t threatening me. Although I will never know what he was thinking, I do know that for those few seconds, I was thinking about him, and he was thinking about me. It is a moment that I’ll never forget.

I did this in 2009 in Riverhead, New York, USA.

Jen (California, USA)

See more of Jen's animal adventures here.