I was worried, yes. A little anxious. Well, who wouldn’t be? Sharks have a bad rep’, after all. And, as smart ideas go, sinking under 11-metres of water with no scuba diving experience to hang out with one of the most reviled predators of the animal kingdom isn’t one of them. Still, a dip with the sharks is the newest family attraction at The Dubai Mall’s aquarium, and my pride wouldn’t let me be outdone by 12-year-old kids with as little experience as me. So off I went to the Al Boom Diving centre in Jumeirah as part of my one-day scuba primer.
Having just a few hours in the morning to prepare for an afternoon scuba dive seemed like a foolish idea at first, and the introductory video that warned of the dangers of lung over-expansion, drowning and ear problems (in that order, inexplicably) didn’t help. But once out of the pokey video room and into Al Boom’s outdoor pool, it was a different matter. The complicated system of tubes, tanks and dials that would keep me from being fish food were carefully explained by Francis, my instructor, and in almost no time I was in the pool and it all started to feel real. Which is where it got scary again.
You see, the introduction to scuba diving doesn’t just cover breathing through a tank and safety hand signals. It also covers cleaning water out of one’s mask while submerged by breathing out through your nose. That might not sound tricky, but once you have a mouthpiece between your teeth and water tickling up your nostrils, you become horrifyingly aware of the complex system of valves, flaps and squishy bits in your head that stop you from drowning. Still, within a couple of hours I was six feet deep – in the best possible sense – and flowing through the water like a dolphin, albeit a slightly clumsy, stunned-looking one. I was about as ready as I could possibly be. Would it be enough?
Concrete walls, metal grates, mysterious pipes and scurrying workers: behind the scenes, Dubai Aquarium looks like a Bond villain’s HQ. The effect is magnified when you enter the office of Paul Hamilton, curator, which has a rotating leather chair, a big glass window overlooking the complex and a series of video screens observing mysterious maintenance machinery. All he needs is a white cat and an interesting scar and the man’s there.
Thankfully, Paul is not evil. Or if he is, he’s good enough at hiding it that you’d never think he was anything more than a jovial host. As a second training video rolled on – this one explaining about the various fish I’d encounter and how to avoid upsetting them – Paul interjected with explanations designed to put me at ease. And, oddly enough, they did.
The tiger sharks, he explained, are not actually a threat to divers. Ordinarily they only eat fish smaller than them anyway, but ever since the tank opened, the aquarium’s staff have been training them like dogs. Now they will only eat at certain times of the day, at a certain area of the tank, and only when hand-fed. That is, fed by hands, not feeding on them.
‘A lot of the time, people see a shark swimming towards them and panic,’ said Paul, ‘but sharks have poor vision and largely navigate by smell. Often they’ll get within two metres of you, realise you’re there and turn away. That’s not threatening behaviour, it’s just that they’ve just noticed you.’ And if the shark keeps swimming, explained Paul, it’s probably just hoping you’ll get out of the way so it doesn’t have to bother correcting its course. Paul even carries a ‘shark stick’, which he can use to gently push the creatures to one side if they can’t be bothered moving themselves. Lazy, feckless creatures of habit? The sharks and I have more in common than I thought.
With the video over, it was time to suit up and dive down. Being new to diving, I hadn’t quite prepared myself for the wetsuit. It was tight. Really tight. On every part of my body. ‘You look like Batman,’ laughed Francis, who had arrived to be my diving buddy. Perhaps, I thought, but I’m dressed like Catwoman. Still, sartorial concerns were the least of my worries. It was time to dive.
Well, perhaps ‘diving’ is the wrong term – rather than jumping into the water, I walked down a stairway and slowly submerged myself, with an inflatable jacket keeping me buoyant. Once I was ready, the jacket was deflated and I could lower myself, foot by foot, on a sturdy rope. The bulky tank and equipment became weightless, as did I, and the full, extraordinary scale of the aquarium became visible. If you think the tank looks impressive from the outside, you have no idea: seen from above, those shoals of fish become clouds of swirling silver knives. Huge rays zip by effortlessly below, and the sharks weave around, paying heed to no-one.
Had I a scuba diving certificate, I could have joined Paul and Francis on a swim around the tank, but as my experience consisted of a few hours in a pool, I was confined to the bottom. Not that it mattered – beginners are placed in a high-traffic corner of the tank that all kinds of slippery beasts and toothy monsters frequent. Long used to the aquarium’s divers, the fish treated me as just another occupant of the tank, swimming around me without a care. Tiger sharks glided just feet from my head, while tiny, colourful fish darted to and fro. Moray eels lurked in the fake coral near my knees. And, for one extraordinary minute, a massive grouper – enormous, metres-long behemoths – moved overhead, silent and terrifying, flanked by a troupe of little yellow hangers-on. The sharks seemed mundane when compared to the wonders filling that tank.
I seemed to be having a similar effect on the crowds outside. Through the translucent barrier – ‘the world’s largest acrylic panel’, boasts the aquarium’s website (well of course) – I could see shoppers waving and snapping photographs. After much posing and smiling – sans mouthpiece (I was getting the hang of this) – I realised that being part of the attraction was almost as much fun as being in it.
And then, all too soon, it was time to surface. But the sadness at the dive’s end was matched by a sense of elation and delight at my first scuba experience. Previously, I had only tried a little snorkelling in Musandam. Now I knew what diving was really like, only the Great Barrier Reef could sate me. But first things first, I thought: let’s get some fish and chips.
Dives at Dubai Aquarium, The Dubai Mall, three times daily. Dhs625 for certified divers, Dhs825, beginners. Sessions last 30 minutes. For bookings and info, contact Al Boom Diving on 04 342 2993 or email@example.com