Didn’t see the first shark for about a half-hour. Tiger. Thirteen-footer. Sometimes that shark looks right at ya. Right into your eyes…” Quint’s Indianapolis speech from Jaws is playing on a loop in my head.
“And the thing about a shark is he’s got lifeless eyes. Black eyes. Like a doll’s eyes. When he comes at ya, he doesn’t even seem to be livin’… ’til he bites ya, and those black eyes roll over white…”
This seemed like a good idea in the pitch meeting. Now, as I sit on the edge of Atlantis The Palm’s Ambassador Lagoon, with my feet dangling into a water filled with teeth, I’m not so sure.
A shark’s fin breaks the surface about ten feet away, before slipping quietly back into the deep blue beneath. The water is cold on my calves. My wetsuit is suddenly warm.
When the sun rose over the lagoon today, there were 65,000 animals swimming around in it. Shortly, they will be joined by three more: Rob Bennett, manager of the lagoon, me and our photographer Patrick Littlejohn, the Valerie to my Ron Taylor, if you will.
As we sink, the view unfurls. The lagoon’s 11 million litres are filtered at an astonishing rate –180,000 litres per minute, actually – so visibility is as pure as it gets. Stingrays, moray eels, piranhas, giant groupers, white tip reef sharks, zebra sharks, milk sharks and more, loop the “ruins” of Atlantis and come in for a closer look. “It’s important to keep your hands by your sides,” briefs Bennett before we take the plunge. “We don’t want them thinking they’re food, do we?” No, no. That we do not.
Different feelings come in waves. First it’s the unbridled wonder of being in such close proximity to so many apex predators. Next there’s the whole underwater Indiana Jonesiness of it all, exploring these “ancient ruins” like a deep sea archaeologist and – if we’re completely honest – feeling really very cool about it. And then there’s the surreal irony of being in a giant fishbowl, the endless stream of Atlantis residents peering in through the 70cm-thick glass windows on their way to a fry-up at Seafire. It’s such a rush that fear doesn’t come into it. At least, not until feeding time.
Dive Atlantis is a newly launched, 100-strong team of aquarists, veterinarians, and even chefs. They feed 472kg of “restaurant-grade” food to their fish five days a week, and it’s a balanced diet that includes – I kid you not – lettuce, tomatoes and cucumbers. That’s not to say the fish particularly thank them for it. Anyone who has been through the special torture of having to get a worming tablet into a cat will appreciate the thinking behind Bennett’s “crab sandwiches” – in which he hides veggies in-between two whole crabs to trick the fish into some vitamins. The fish, I can now personally attest, go mental for them.
As a rare bonus at the end of today’s dive experience, we’ve been invited to witness breakfast. It is, simply, extraordinary. Bennett opens one of his two plastic containers filled with crustacean sarnies and the place erupts.
The sharks aren’t the problem – they drift icily above, coldly disinterested – it’s the stingrays who lose all sense of decorum. Like a busload of Germans descending on a beach full of empty sunloungers, they abruptly abandon their serene gliding in favour of a kind of graceless rampage not seen since the Boxing Day sales. My mask is knocked sideways by one a good three feet across. Another whacks the regulator out of my mouth. I am buffeted across the lagoon’s sandy floor, this way and that as their massively powerful wings shunt me out of the way in the search of grub. And then Bennett gives me a dead fish to hold.
A stingray’s mouth, it turns out, is a lot like the alien’s one in Alien. A great gawping maw that opens and protrudes out of itself, jaws extending out of that smooth white underside. As I kneel, dumbfounded, one swings in and that jaw pops out and snatches the fish right out of my clammy little hand. I nearly faint with either terror or joy, it’s hard to say which even now. Littlejohn points the camera, ready for my close-up. Smile, his eyes seem to say, you son of a…
Dhs2,500 (for the two-tank experience), Dive Atlantis, Atlantis The Palm, Palm Jumeirah (04 426 300004 426 3000).
Four to try Dive Atlantis experiences
Designed specifically for non-certified divers (a PADI course can take anything up to a week to complete) this experience will give you basic diving skills and take you down to meet the sharks and angelfish around the Atlantis ruins. First dives frankly don’t get better.
Dhs950 per person.
Certified divers can either do a single tank dive for Dhs800, or upgrade to The Ultimate Dive Experience, a two-tank trip in which you get to hand-feed the rays and then have Middle Eastern mezze on the rooftop terrace. Also new is the Shark By Night night dive, which will set you back Dhs1,150.
Dhs2,500 per person.
The Ultimate Snorkel
Anyone not up for strapping a tank to their back and heading down to the bottom can instead opt for the surface version. Given the stunning visibility of the Ambassador Lagoon, this is a smart and considerably cheaper way to get up close and personal to its residents.
Dhs225 per person.
Dolphin Scuba Dive
If you’ve seen Jaws enough times to not really fancy the whole shark diving lark, you can always opt instead for something with friendlier fins. This is an option only available for certified divers, and the experience offers a rare chance to swim and interact with dolphins underwater.
Dhs1,450 per person.