Point Defiance Zoo lets you swim with the sharks

TACOMA, Wash. -- Exhilarating, edgy, and enlightening are a few words you can use to describe the Eye-to-Eye shark dives now being offered for the first time at Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium.

Sure, you can fly all over the globe in search of shark dives, but now the heart-thumping excitement is not a plane ride away, just a drive to Tacoma.

Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium created a South Pacific Coral Reef, which now 17 sharks call it home -- including a 9-foot long Lemon Shark. She weighs more than 450 pounds, yet glides through the water with true grace.

Certified and even non-certified divers can suit up and descend into their world.

While divers swim amongst the sharks in the aquarium tank, staff divers stay nearby with a plastic pipe in hand, just to make sure the sharks don't get too close. And you don't need any dive experience at all to get in on this exhilarating experience -- non-divers stay in their street clothes and descend into a cage with a respirator for breathing to see all of the underwater action.

"It was so cool, a shark came so close to the cage," said 24-year-old Michaela Alden, a marketing employee at the zoo. "I mean, it was beautiful."

She admits she had a little trouble at first with the breathing, but she said once she got into the zone, the experience was so amazing for her that she plans to come back next month with a friend.

The aquarium is launching this program to engage people in the wonderment and beauty of sharks. At the end of their experience, divers head home with more than their memories -- they get a souvenir towel and perhaps some shark's teeth off the sandy floor of the tank. And the aquarium hopes they also carry the message of shark conservation out the door with them.

"People generally don't know that much about this issue," said Aquarium Deputy Director John Houck. The issue, Houck says, is the over-fishing and brutal harvesting of sharks worldwide. It's estimated that as many as 100 million sharks are harvested worldwide each year.

"If this continues, we'll essentially empty out the oceans," Houck said. "The best estimates are that 38 million sharks are killed every year just for their fins, to make shark fin soup."

The process, Houck said, is brutal and bloody. He says people catch the shark, slice off its fin and throw it back in the water to die.

Through Eye-to-Eye Shark Encounters, Houck says he hopes visitors and divers spread the word of conservation and pledge to protect them. The program teaches the young and old, in and out of the water, about the things they can do as individuals to make a difference:

* Do not purchase shark products such as shark fin soup, sharkskin items, or pills made with shark cartilage or shark jaws
* Choose sustainable seafood caught in ways that don't accidentally catch and kill sharks
* Urge members of Congress to pass laws to protect sharks

The Point Defiance program has two distinct experiences:

* Cage Dive: For non-certified divers ages 8 and up. No experience needed.
* Scuba Dive: For certified scuba divers ages 15 and up.

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