Point Defiance to Let Visitors Swim with Sharks

Oct 10, 2013

Beginning Friday, an aquarium in Tacoma will let paying visitors dive in a shark-infested tank.

The Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium has built a dive cage in a tank that is home to 17 sharks. Experienced scuba divers can even swim out into the center of the pool.

Ah, the things you might question there's high demand for. More than 400 people have already made reservations to take a dip in a tank full of sharks. Cue the theme music from the movie “Jaws.”

But not to worry says instructor Heidi Wilken during a preview of the "Eye-to-Eye Shark Dive" program.

"We've never had any instances of aggression from our sharks. We've done thousands of dives in this exhibit. So I would say you're very safe,” says Wilken.

Before I jump in, one question: when were the sharks last fed? 

"They are fed twice a week—Tuesdays and Saturdays. And you know, we are not prey items for them. In most cases where there are shark bites, it's a case of mistaken identity,” says Wilken.

Credit Kris Sherman / PDZN

And with that, the dive staff helps me get into a dry suit. We go behind the scenes of the South Pacific reef exhibit. The spacious saltwater tank holds 17 sharks of six different species as well as assorted smaller fish.

A swim ladder leads into the submerged dive cage. There's space for up to four guests. Cage divers breathe air from the surface through long tubes.

The water is warm. Sharks cruise slowly by, some as close as two arm lengths away. Before diving, Wilken tells me to keep my arms inside the bars.

"No petting the sharks," she says, not that I'm inclined to.

After my breathing settles, the guide opens the underwater cage doors wide open to "improve the view." A sand tiger shark with a toothy grin glides by, focusing a beady eye on us. The biggest shark in the tank, a 9-foot 450-pound lemon shark, makes repeated passes. Less intimidating companions include a bunch of nurse sharks and a blacktip reef shark.

Regular aquarium visitors can watch all these goings-on through underwater viewing windows. The dive ends after 20 minutes of unmolested observation. 

Credit Kris Sherman / PDZN

John Houck, deputy director of the Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium, hopes shark dives generate buzz and eventually turn a profit for the aquarium. But he also says a primary goal for the project is to build awareness of conservation and the overharvesting of sharks.

"Many people think that sharks are threatening, obviously. But we believe that it is the sharks who are threatened by us - and our practices of harvesting in the oceans,” he said.

A few aquariums on the East Coast have offered shark dives for a while now. The Point Defiance Aquarium is the first in the Northwest to offer it. A cage dive costs non-members $65, no experience necessary. Certified scuba divers can swim out among the sharks with a guide for $175.