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Tacoma Aquarium Lets Visitors Dive With Sharks

Beginning this Friday, an aquarium in Tacoma, Wash., will let paying visitors dive in a shark-infested tank. That's right. 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. We sent correspondent Tom Banse to get to the bottom of this story.

Ah, the things you might question there's high demand for. Well, more than four hundred people have already made reservations to take a dip in a tank full of sharks. 

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

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

Just to be sure, I ask when the sharks were last fed.

"They are fed twice a week - Tuesdays and Saturdays," Wilken says. "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."

And with that, the dive staff helps me get into a dry suit and we go behind the scenes of the South Pacific reef exhibit. The spacious saltwater tank holds seventeen sharks of six different species, plus 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 via a long tube.

The water is warm. Sharks cruise slowly by, some as close as two arm lengths away. Before I dive, 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, a 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 makes repeated passes. It's a nine foot, 450-pound lemon shark. 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.

My dive ends after twenty minutes of unmolested observation.

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 doing this is to build awareness of conservation and the over-harvesting of sharks.

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

There are a few aquariums on the East Coast offering shark dives. The Point Defiance Aquarium is the first in the Northwest to offer it.

A cage dive costs non-members $65, no experience necessary. If you're a certified scuba diver, you can swim out among the sharks with a guide for $175. 

On the Web:

Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium:

Now semi-retired, Tom Banse covered national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reported from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events unfolded. Tom's stories can be found online and were heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.