‘It’s like walking on the moon, ain’t it?’ says the southern American gent leaning over the side of the shark tank as I emerge from the water. ‘Thanks, you’ve just written my story for me,’ I tell him, only half-joking.
I’ve never been to the moon. But I imagine it’s not a world away from the feeling of plodding along the bottom of the huge tank that hosts Atlantis’s Shark Safari. The key difference, of course, is the presence of the big sharks and rays swimming around your head.
The sharks are not the scary part, at least not for me anyway. As a big fan of the oft-misunderstood creatures, I know I’m in little danger from the well-fed blacktip and whitetip reef sharks living in the tank. For someone like me who has always had trouble with small spaces, however, the helmet is another matter, especially as my nose squashes right up against the glass as the heavy piece of kit is lowered onto my head.
The ‘Sea Trek’ system, linked to the oxygen tank on my back, works differently to a scuba tank, pumping air constantly into the helmet to create an air bubble that keeps the water out. Upon each deep breath, the water actually rises into the helmet slightly, up to my chin, before receding again as more air is pumped into the helmet.
I needn’t have worried about feeling confined. Once the long (and odd) trudge down the huge ladder is over and my bare feet touch sand, I soon forget my fears as I fixate on five or six whitetips lying on the sand about five metres in front of me, their mouths opening and closing almost in unison, like they are in song. Unlike most sharks (including their blacktip cousins who stay to the other side of the tank), whitetips don’t need to be moving to breathe as they can pass water over their gills while motionless.
My scuba-diving guide points behind me to a huge ray which appears to fly through the water. He then beckons for me to start my slow walk around the edges of the tank. As I slowly approach the singing shark group, one of the fascinating creatures gives me a look not of aggression, nor fear, but what appears to be irritation at being disturbed, before swimming off. I apologise out loud for my clumsiness in this unfamiliar environment. I hope my new friend understands. A curious cownose ray swoops down to the bottom of the tank and is lost from my vision as I realise the helmet does not allow me to look down. Hoping I don’t stand on one of the animals, a huge jet of water seems to explode suddenly around me, yet I feel no movement. I realise the jet is inside the water slide transporting water park visitors through the middle of the tank. Two thrill-seekers wave at me from the tube as I restart my stroll.
Soon, I have circled the tank and the 20-minute safari is over, only too quickly. As my guide ushers me towards the ladder, I can’t help but wish it was I, not he, who was wearing the scuba gear to explore the tank with more freedom. But for those who don’t want to dive, the safari is a unique chance to explore this alien world.
Dhs275 per person for a 20-minute safari in addition to Aquaventure entry fee (Dhs210 for adults, Dhs165 for children, or UAE residents Dhs140 for adults, Dhs115 for children). Safaris are run daily every 30-minutes from 11am-noon, 1pm-4pm. Aquaventure, Atlantis The Palm, Palm Jumeirah (04 426 0000).