Every vision I’d imagined when hearing the term “shark-cage dive” conjures some version of the word “stressful.” Terrifying. Adrenaline-charged. Feverish. But this is the Denver Downtown Aquarium’s Shark Cage Experience, where only one word comes to my mind: serene.
More than 300 tropical fish (and three green sea turtles) dwell in this 350,000-gallon tank into which my 13-year-old son, Colin, and I have been suspended within an acrylic cage. We’re riveted by the sea life entering our view: a speedy blacktip reef shark darting effortlessly past at eye level; a lumbering, 14-foot green sawfish, its long rostrum extending from its head like a flat saw, gliding beneath the cage; and a graceful turtle floating butterfly-like above our heads. Beyond the animals, I notice aquarium visitors facing toward us into the Shipwreck exhibit, the aquarium’s largest. I imagine them saying, “Look at those crazy people in the shark tank!”
There is silence as I sit on the cage’s bench, save for the bubbles of my breath coursing through my dive regulator in the cobalt-blue salt water. My reverie is interrupted only occasionally when Colin taps me on my arm and points toward an animal swimming by.
Breaking Shark Stereotypes
The experience is meant to educate and inspire guests to help conserve sharks and sea life for future generations. “They get such a negative portrayal in the media and Hollywood—that sharks are these man-eating beings, and we need to teach people that that’s not the case,” says Dive Operations Manager Wendie Murray. “This way, we get young kids in to see what sharks actually do in the water without chumming the water, without feeding them like they do in Hollywood…all those unfortunate movies that make it look like [sharks are] out to eat you. We don’t want that anymore. We need to show [guests] that’s not how they act.”
The focus on the experience shows the animals in their natural state. That means no feeding frenzy. With some 300 million sharks being depleted from the ocean each year—many for shark-fin soup—the population is impossible to replace annually (since sharks’ gestation period is roughly two years). The aquarium aims to depict them in a more positive light.
“We don’t disrupt their natural behavior,” Murray says. “We want to show people that these sharks are worth protecting; their fins are much better on their body than in soup.”
“We also want people to get excited by the oceans, get excited about diving,” says Michael Ortiz, the dive-safety officer who assisted Colin and me in the cage. The hope, he says, is that guests are inspired to become dive certified, see the animals in their natural habitat, and, ultimately, help protect the earth’s oceans. “With this [cage], we actually have the tools to do that for almost everybody.”
What To Expect
We began with a 20-minute tutorial, where we learned about the animals we’ll see, including five shark species—four sandbar or brown shark, four sand tiger (which swim with their mouth open), one blacktip reef, three zebra (born with stripes but spotted as adults), and 15 bamboo—as well as other fish like butterfly, unicorn, banner, golden trevally, barracuda, and Napoleon wrasse. There are also the scene stealers of the show, the green sea turtles: male Donatello, and females Rafael and Michengelo (whom I mentally rename Rafaella and Michelangla). We also learned about diving hand signals, how to climb down the ladder and sit on the cage’s bench (there are handles to hold as you sit) and how to climb back out of the cage.
I’m the first to exit, so I’m waiting to hear Colin’s assessment of the cage as he ascends from the water.
“What was your favorite part?” Murray asks.
“I like the saw under us,” he says of the green sawfish.
“And what did you think of the experience?” she asks.
“I loved it,” he says. Fellow parents of teens will understand there is no higher endorsement than his answer.
Need to Know
Denver Downtown Aquarium Shark Cage Experience is offered every Saturday and Sunday; three groups each day, with up to 5 guests per group (six if a single family). No prior dive experience necessary, minimum age is eight years old. $100 per person includes all gear and 20 minutes underwater with an A1 certified dive guide. Private sessions also available. Age six and up can snorkel in the Under the Sea exhibit. The aquarium celebrates Shark Day Aug. 7, featuring a shark-touching experience.