I was afraid. I’d mooched through the underwater tunnel in The Dubai Mall’s aquarium a few times, gazing at those tiger sharks’ big gnashers. The idea of trying out Al Boom’s latest service, ‘cage snorkelling’ with the dead-eyed fish, made me shudder. I tried to gloss over it – for once the word ‘cage’ comforted – as we headed to the second-floor entrance of the ginormous tank.
Thankfully, my snorkel-buddy and I were greeted by two of Al Boom’s reassuring guides, Titu and Wendil. To calm our nerves they showed us a video explaining that, on average, 791 people die each year owing to faulty toasters (airborne toast?), while apparently just four are killed by sharks. Although we’re sure most people don’t choose to get in a tank with them. A very in-depth guide to using a snorkel and mask, as well as entering and exiting the tank, followed. The activity is clearly aimed at those who are not avid divers or seamen. But their extra-cautious explanations were reassuring; by this point our pre-tank nerves had struck.
After hoisting on the 5lb wetsuits and shoes (no small effort), we stepped into the cage. I say cage – only half of it is made up of bars, while the bottom panel is thick acrylic, apparently for better viewing. Fortunately, the suits protected us from the water’s freezing temperature. Okay, so I may be exaggerating: the water was 24°C, but the suits were still entirely necessary. They also allow you to float like a bubble. Grabbing the hand rails, we affixed our masks and looked down. And straight ahead, since directly in front of our faces we spied a veritable shoal of fish (Jacks, for those who know their marine life) that kept darting in and out of the bars. Deeper down we could spot all sorts: stingrays, groupers and, every now and again, those slinky sharks – although when seen through the combination of our masks, the water and the glass floor, they suddenly didn’t seem like such a threat (or terribly clear).
Every 10 minutes or so a glass-bottomed boat of people coasted past us and stared as the on-board guide pointed us out. Below, meanwhile, we could make out not only Al Boom’s divers, but blurry people walking through the shark tunnel, waving and flashing their cameras at us. Bizarrely, we were becoming of more interest than the fish. We really felt like fish out of water. Or something.
After 30 minutes of simple bobbing, the chill had reached our bones, only to be remedied by blazing hot showers and gradually inching off the super suits.
Finally dry, we went and stood in front of the aquarium’s main panel. Our ‘cage’ was startlingly prominent. We had no idea we’d been providing a bit of a show for the hundred or so shoppers gazing up at the tank. The aquarium’s biggest grouper floated past: I stared into its terrifyingly large eye. I’m certain we shared a moment of understanding.
*This first appeared in Time Out in 2009.
Cage snorkelling, daily 12pm-8pm, Dhs225 for 30 minutes’ floating time, min age 5yrs. Contact 04 342 2993 or email email@example.com.
Dubai Aquarium & Underwater Zoo