Friday, June 1, 2007

"Shark Dive"

By Jerry Zezima
The Stamford Advocate

One of the scariest things about the movie "Jaws," the heartwarming tale of a great white shark who loved people so much he just ate them up, was the music. Playing ominously in the background was John Williams’ Oscar-winning score, which went like this: "Dumb-dumb-dumb-dumb, dumb-dumb-dumb-dumb."

That described me recently when I went to Atlantis Marine World Aquarium in Riverhead, N.Y., for what I feared would be a once-in-a-lifetime experience called a Shark Dive.

Instead of encountering a great white, or even a mediocre white, I came face-to-face with nine sharks that had a combined total of what appeared to be several million teeth, each of which could sever a major artery, such as Interstate 95 or the Long Island Expressway. Six were sand tiger sharks, the largest of which measured 7 feet long, weighed 300 pounds and was named Bertha, and three were nurse sharks, in case Bertha was hungry and I needed medical care. Unfortunately, there were no doctor sharks, but there was a gigantic loggerhead turtle that weighed more than Bertha and was named – this was the really scary part – Jaws.

The Shark Dive took place in the aquarium’s 12-foot-deep, 120,000-gallon tank, which also is home to lots of other creatures, including a stingray and a moray eel, neither of which is mentioned in my life-insurance policy.

Speaking of which, I had to sign several waivers absolving Atlantis Marine World and, though not mentioned specifically by name, Bertha from any blame in case I needed the services of the Davy Jones Funeral Home ("For all of your at-sea burial needs").

I should point out that I was in a metal cage that provided protection against the tank’s most dangerous creature: me. It seems sharks are in more danger from humans than the other way around, probably because the most frightening sharks are called – you guessed it – lawyers.

"We hear a lot of lawyer jokes," said marine biologist Chris Paparo, who with Kate Hanson, the aquarium’s head shark dive educator, told me everything I wanted to know about sharks but was afraid to ask. For example, sharks can smell one drop of blood from a mile away. They also can detect the heartbeat of a potential meal.

"Don’t worry," Hanson assured me, "sand tiger sharks eat only fish and other long, soft-bodied creatures."

"Wait a minute," I said as my heartbeat picked up. "I’m a long, soft-bodied creature."

I thought I was nervous until I met Anthony Esposito, who would be going on the Shark Dive with me. Esposito’s wife, Idina, had given him the dive, which costs $155, for his 39th birthday. She and their children, Anthony Jr., 13, Brendan, 10, and Giulia, 8 months, were there to watch and, because you never know what might happen, kiss him goodbye.

Even though Esposito is a trainer for Brazilian jujitsu welterweight champion Matt Serra, requiring him to spar with Serra in a cage, which to me would be worse than being in a shark cage, he admitted: "I’m scared."

There really was no reason to be. Dive master Ken LaPeters, who would be in the cage with us, made sure we were thoroughly schooled in what to do, from donning our wet suits to putting on our masks, which had microphones so we could talk with each other. The masks also were hooked up to air tanks, which made me breathe a lot easier.

LaPeters’ son, Ken Jr., 10, who said he wants to be like his dad when he grows up, helped me on with my rubber shoes. "Have fun!" he said before the three of us were locked in the cage and lowered into the tank.

Fun was an understatement. For half an hour, I had the most exhilarating and educational experience of my life. I chatted away with LaPeters, who is funny, dedicated and knowledgeable; gave the thumbs-up sign to the visibly less nervous Esposito, who waved as his wife and kids took pictures from outside the glass tank; and said hello to Bertha, who swam by several times, as did the other sharks, but apparently – and fortunately – found me extremely unappetizing.

I now have a greater appreciation for sharks and other undersea life, which is the point of the Shark Dive. And, unlike a lot of people in "Jaws," I lived to tell about it.

Copyright 2007 by Jerry Zezima


heather said...

I'm so glad I found your column. My husband just gifted me with the shark dive for my birthday. I'm going in August and so very excited to do this. However, I found it very comforting to read your article since, of course, swimming with sharks is just a little bit scary.:)

Anonymous said...

thank you so much! your blog is just what was needed to be said with regard to sharks and an appreciation for them, I also enjoyed reading your take on "jaws" thank you!

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Hera said...

Great blog!

Can you tell me a little bit about the scuba diving lessons they provided before the dive, if any. Did you swim in order to test the suit and equipment in water prior to the dive?

More generally, they do give you a class right? How long is it and what did it include?