If you’re anything like me, the temptation to watch videos of botched big thrill experiences – just hours before you try them out for yourself – is just too great to resist. It’s all part of the rush.
Footage of a great white bashing its way into a cage during a dive off the coast of Mexico recently went viral. The diver inside was unharmed, but it’s still a mystery how the shark got into the cage, which make you realise there’s always room for freak incidents.
With that minor dilemma in mind, I head over to Dubai Aquarium & Underwater Zoo to try out one of the newest experiences available at The Dubai Mall tourist magnet: the Shark Encounter.
I already know that just as with cage diving out at sea, I’ll be safely nestled in a metal-barred box. And having gazed at this, the largest suspended aquarium on the planet, on numerous shopping mall visits, I’m pretty sure that the apex predator sinisterly nicknamed White Death isn’t a resident of this ten-million-litre water world.
But there are plenty more sharks, and none of the kind you want to pet, as our instructors later explain. The Shark Encounter experience gets its name from how close you get to two main shark species, the sand tiger and zebra. All thanks to one thing – feeding. A specialist diver offers up lunch to the hungry predators from within the cage, while you keep a safe distance and stay focused on your breathing.
After all, this experience doesn’t involve an oxygen tank or require official diving certification. Instead, visitors wear an astronaut-style helmet that creates an air bubble so you can breathe underwater. The trainers also talk us through how to equalize, which essentially means pinching your nostrils with your fingers, blowing and popping your ears, all to release compression pressure during descent.
With the brief but comprehensive training talk over, my wife and I squeeze into our respective wetsuits and then have seven-kilo chains strapped to our waists to weigh us down in the cage.
The time has come. As we head down the steps to the water’s surface, some nerves kick in, but more about not being hooked up to a proper oxygen tank than having a limb chewed off by a cheeky selachimorpha (the scientific name for sharks).
Once in the water, we descend step by step. Reassuringly, I’m still able to breathe perfectly with my helmet on. It’s a weird sensation. Every part of your body feels like it’s underwater except your head. It’s just a case of keeping calm and breathing because the helmet is constantly supplying you with oxygen.
Dubai Aquarium is heaving with marine life and by the time the cage has been lowered a few metres, we’re absolutely enveloped by a gob-smacking variety of species.
Wobbegongs, white tip reef sharks, cow nose stingrays, grey reefs, nurse sharks, a total of 300 species are all around us. Some of the slimmer fish are so undeterred by our presence they actually go through the cage’s bars and casually swim around inside, right beside our flabbergasted faces.
Just as we think it can’t get any more awesomely surreal, the shark feeding begins. Divers with buckets full of fish enter the enclosure and, as I turn around on my knees, at least a dozen six-foot-long zebra sharks are just inches away from me, waiting anxiously for their first bite.
They’re quick and unpredictable, but more cute than scary, slurping up the fish offered by the glove-wielding divers before scramming.
Far more intimidating are the sand tiger sharks, with visibly sharp teeth and much closer to our idea of “blood-thirsty sharks”, at least in appearance.
My wife taps me on the shoulder and alarmingly points at one of these species – a younger one that’s managed to squeeze its way into our cage – pushed out milliseconds after by our diver. Not quite a “freak experience”, but certainly a thrilling one.
More importantly, it’s a perfect example of how sharks are one of the animal kingdom’s most misunderstood species group – 440 types in total, each of them different but all fascinating and totally worth observing up-close in a safe environment.
This experience at the Dubai Mall’s Aquarium is special for that very reason – the sheer variety of sharks and other marine species you get to come up close to without needing a diver’s licence or even knowing how to swim.
It’s pretty unique, especially when you gaze out at the hoard of shoppers at the mall watching you in the cage – a far more intimidating sight.
Dhs600, Shark Encounter is managed by Al Boom Diving Center at Dubai Aquarium & Underwater Zoo, The Dubai Mall (04 342 2993).