by Harry (Big H) Ryalls.
12th May, 2003: Come face to face with Europe’s largest collection of Sand Tiger sharks. Dive in our warm Caribbean waters and watch as Southern Stingrays glide overhead whilst you are searching for shark’s teeth in the white coral sands.
HOW TO WIN A DIVE WITH THE SHARKS AT THE BLUE PLANET AQUARIUM
That’s what caught my eye whilst walking around the hall at DIVE 2002 at the NEC in Birmingham last October. Diving with sharks that could be fun, and they’re doing a free to enter competition as well, even better still. Now where did I put that pen?
Just tick the boxes and answer a few questions to be in with a chance to win one of the 12 places on offer. Here goes then, got to be in it to win it!!
That was the last time I thought of it until the letter arrived and hit the mat. Totally independently, we had won two of the places. How amazing, well it was for me anyway, as I had never won anything from these competitions, not like Julie ’The Wife’ who is very lucky concerning the DIVE SHOW draws.
Even more amazing was the fact that a couple of our friends had also won. (Four places out of a total of twelve on offer. There can’t have been many entries).
There was no going back now, hope the tigers are fed well? I would hate to lose something vital. When was the date? 30th March 2003, still time to think it through and decide either way. Just needed to phone them and say ’No Thanks’, strange I could only say ’Yes Please’ when I got through. Now I’m no coward, well not around the wife anyway, she’s brave enough for the both of us; bring on the sharks. So we all got talking and made arrangements for the big day, sorry night, it’s was a ’Blue Planet Dive Night’ that we had all won.
Nigel, Angela, Julie and myself are all qualified divers, Nigel and Angela are both qualified PADI ADVANCED OPENWATER divers, Julie and myself are equally qualified under both PADI and BSAC. We had known Nigel and Angela, since they came to our club to ’have a go’ at SCUBA before going off on an exotic holiday, where they were going to have the chance to do some real diving. Nigel volunteered to do the driving, which was nice for me; I would supply the tanks, air and weights for the event. Everyone had to supply the rest of their own diving equipment.
With Tanks full charged and lots of weights to hold us down, the day arrived and we set off from Bristol for Ellesmere Port, Cheshire. With the back of the car ladened with the women and the kit, it was full steam up the motorways (M5, M6, M56, M53) for three and a half hours before we turned into the car park of the Blue Planet. Next was to find out what we needed to do now. As we were 30 minutes early and did not have to meet just yet, we were allowed to have a stroll around to see what was on offer to the general public.
The Blue Planet Aquarium
The Blue Planet aquarium opened in 1998 at a cost of £14m. It houses more than 5,000 animals in five different theme galleries. These galleries offer amazing things to see such as the largest rock pools in Europe, an Aqua Theatre and the UK’s biggest Piranha exhibit. See, the Tidal pool, Octopus and Similar Species, the dart frogs-one of the deadliest animals in the world – and explore rock pools. Its main attraction has a massive viewing area 4-metre high, 6-metre long Aqua-theatre window (6.5cm thick) and utilises two horizontally curved acrylic tunnels, with a total length of seventy-one metres. These tunnels take you beneath the water of the massive aquarium and allow you to marvel at the wonders of the deep. The aquarium environment is modelled on the marine condition of a Caribbean reef and provides a unique combination of education and entertainment. The Tunnel is carefully designed to maximise the visitor’s exposure to all facets of life and activity in the tank. At 36m x 24m, around 6m at its deepest point the tank houses some 3.5million litres of salt-water. This salt water is created in-house to the correct levels of salinity for its occupants from the mains supplied water. Occupying this watery home is a host of approximately fifteen hundred fish, of some sixty-five different species. These include sand tiger shark, lemon sharks and nurse sharks, morays, triggerfish, barracuda, porkfish, lookdowns, southern stingrays and marine life. These all combine to make the main tank quite a magnificent spectacle.
In addition to the tunnels, the main oceanarium and equally interesting exhibit features; it includes a Gift Shop, Food and Beverage Outlet.
Our brief tour of the exhibits.
Food for the Hungry Denizens of the Deep??
The exhibits on display were very good and it was a shame that we did not have more time to enjoy them fully. There are touch pools- Fancy touching a shark? You can get hands-on experience of rough starfish, prickly urchins and sticky sea anemones; Fascinating, interactive displays- showing the evolution, adaptations and lifecycles of various amphibians; Exotic piranhas, stingrays and electric eels lingering in flooded forest, as thunderstorms rage above and around them. This is just a sample of the things to see, there are lots more and we could have spent hours gently strolling around.
These were just some of the exhibits to look at and enjoy. But what we were mainly interested in was ’The Underwater Caribbean Safari’.
This was exhilarating exhibit and consisted of two acrylic tunnels where you ’walked underwater’, but stayed nice and dry whilst doing it. Here we saw, for the first time, the sharks that we would be spending time with later on.
My, some of them had very large teeth and lots of them. Was that one smiling at me or is that just an evil grin it gives to something that could become a quick meal for later?
Gosh that a big one and my eyes grew larger as it glides effortlessly across the roof of the tunnel right above our heads. If it was not for that thin piece of plastic you could have ran your hand along its length and if lucky kept all your fingers.
There are seven Sand Tiger, two Lemon and three Nurse sharks (plus numerous Sting Rays) in this aquarium and their passage takes your eyes away from all the other life that occupies the water all around you. You have to mentally drag your sight away to see all the colour and variety of life that shares the water with these majesties of the deep. Sharing this watery home with these mighty denizens of the deep are Southern Sting Rays; The Blue Planet is the only aquarium in the UK to have successfully bred this species, and a variety of around fifteen hundred Caribbean fish including large groupers and moray Eels, but far too many species to list here.
Diving with the Sharks.
As the saying goes ’Time waits for no man’ and it was back to the foyer to find out the details of the night’s festivities and what was expected of us.
We were told to make our way around the back, where we could unload our kit, assemble the diving equipment and have it washed down before taking to the water. This was not as easy as it seemed and took us couple of goes before we found our way. Hopefully this was not a sign of things to come. We were soon ready and had to show our qualification to our dive guide Rob Bennett, who recorded the details and organised our groups. We asked him to keep us together if possible, which he thankfully did. Then it was around to the auditorium for the dive brief and to be told when it was our turn. Here we were told all the do’s and don’ts that we had to obey for our trip in the tank. Ron has been on the wrong side of some of the sharks, so his advice was carefully noted.
Our group would be the second group to enter the tank, so we were allowed to join the other spectators in one of the viewing tunnels to watch the first group as they walked around like Captain Nemo’s warriors walking in single file behind their leader, heads twisting to look for any danger. As they did not have any fins on and were carrying around fifteen pounds of lead extra, they also had to lean forward to walk, which looked very funny through the perspex until you realised that you would very soon be doing just that and they would soon be laughing at you. They followed Rob to the various stopping points in the tank where time would be allowed for each group to look and admire the local fish life. One thing I noticed was that Rob was carrying two bolts, I thought these may have dropped out from somewhere and he had picked them up, but I was later to learn how wrong I was.
Soon we were being asked to get ready for our turn, we had to have a shower and wash any cosmetics off, then put our suits on – if you were wearing a wet suit, you had to put it on in the shower, easier aid than done, especially as when it was wet, it had a mind of it’s own. Any other type was washed down once donned. This was to ensure no contaminates were introduced into the marine environment by any of the divers taking part in the nights activities.
Once fully dressed it was back to the pool area to get kitted for the water. With cameras dangling we were led to the side of the aquarium and asked to step into the water and on to a shelf close to the edge. Once there we had to sit down for the final brief. Rob explained to us that the entire reef in the tank was false, it was made of concrete over wire mesh, so there was no problem with touching it, we could use it to aid our descent to the sand below and our muster area. He also explained the reason for the bolts. One tap was to get the safety divers attention, two taps was to get our attention so he could point items of interest out. Three taps meant DROP TO YOUR KNEES – SHARK ATTACK!!! – No, it meant that one of the sharks was getting too curious, or was making the wrong moves, so we were to kneel down and allow it to drift past. Rob would act as bait and shoo it away. Over to you Rob. The dive marshal checked everything was ok, recorded our air supply and we were off. We were given the order of descent and I followed Nigel to the bottom, with Julie, then Angela bringing up the rear. Once settled on the bottom, we were given the final OK and then we were off. Ooops three taps, down on the knees, what’s up? The Alpha Male Sand Tiger Shark was taking more than a passing interest in our group and Rob was playing like a door and not letting him pass. This lasted for hours, but really moments and we were off to the first stopping point next to one of the tunnels. Here we could look at the Homo Sapiens that occupied this area, better still we could look around for the sharks. There’s one slowly making it’s way towards us, no taps so time for some snaps, hope they come out ok as we were told not to use our flashes. On our initial brief, we were told to look out for sharks teeth, no, not in their mouths, but on the sand. They occasionally dropped out, so any we found we could keep. Once at the first stop it was time to look around, I remember that smile and those teeth, our friendly cruiser from the tunnel. Not looking all that fierce now, but still needs to be treated with respect. Up came the camera and a couple of shots before it passed by. Another thing that we were told was to sprinkle the coarse sand over the fish, they loved it, so we did and yes they did as well.
Very soon loads of different species were around us, all plying for their share of being sprinkled and massaged by the sand. The bigger varieties pushing the smaller ones out of the way, so they could hog all the fun.
Two taps and we were off towards the large display window, where friends of those in the tank could see and photograph them. Sadly we were all alone with no one out there to take our photograph, so we would have to take our own. As I was getting ready to move I noticed a funny shape in the sand- I had found my first shark’s tooth, much smaller than I imagined. Moments later I had found my second, which I gave to Julie. We slowly made our way to the next stopping place; you had to lean forward quite a bit as it made it easier. I was thankful for the extra weight as well; it gave you the ability to push yourself through the water without falling over backwards. I was looking around and snapping different shots when the moments allowed when three taps were heard, I look forward as I dropped to my knees. There in front of us was a mass of shark; we had to wait for them to move on before turning the corner and arriving at the window. This was the least interesting part for me as there was no one on the outside wanting to see me on the inside, so it was back to dropping sand on the fish. I had a good look around the place but nothing of interest was at home. A Box Puffer Fish, A Barracuda and a small ray slowly made their way across the window, so it was not a total waste of time. Two taps, we were off again to our final stopping point, what? Where had the time gone, we had been down for twenty minuets already. By this time I had found another tooth and was very proud of myself, but there was more to come. There, as I stepped over the reef, was the largest one I was to find and it looked like a proper tooth as well. Big smiles.
Our final stopping point was adjacent to the other tunnel, where we had stood an hour ago watching life go by, now we were on the inside looking out. Now where was that large grouper that we had seen, there it was lying on the bottom of a rock, how do they do that I wonder? Two taps, Rob is pointing behind me, quickly turn and see a Green Moray gliding over the reef towards it hide hole. I quickly snap a couple of shots, but am sure I missed the opportunity. A shadow passes over me and I look up to see one of the large female Sand Tiger Sharks gliding pass, must not miss this, what’s wrong? Can’t have. All thirty-six shots gone – DAMN! – what have I used all of them on – Sharks I hope, a good time to have a look around now then. What’s that? Two taps, we’re off again, I recognise that, it’s where we started our trip and it’s where we were to finish as well. I follow the group up to the surface, strange not having to control your buoyancy on the ascent, this must be due to the extra weight being carried; thankfully there are steps to aid us otherwise we could be here for sometime. Finally, back at the surface muster point, we are logged back in and a record of our air taken. The Dive Marshal asked if we had found any teeth, I proudly showed him my collection but he still gave me another one to add to it. Then it was back to the kitting area, a shower, pack the kit away and load the car. We were presented with a certificate stating that we had ’dived with the sharks’; a final photograph and we were on our way home.
The Sand Tiger Shark.
Depending on where you are and who you are, sand tiger sharks may or may not be thought of as dangerous. The sand tiger (Odontaspis taurus) belongs to the family Odonaspididae and is also called the spotted ragtooth or grey nurse shark. It can be found in the western Atlantic from the Gulf of Maine to Argentina, the Atlantic coast of Europe and North Africa, and the Mediterranean Sea. A summer resident of Delaware Bay, Maryland USA, where it bears its young, the sand tiger matures at about 7 feet. Females bear two pups a year, one from each of her oviducts (egg-laying tubes). While in the oviduct, the embryos are cannibalistic and eat the other eggs and each other until only one survives. This allows the pups to grow quite large before birth. Young of up to 40 inches have been reported. The sand tiger shark reportedly swallows air, holding the air in its stomach to achieve neutral buoyancy, and has been observed resting motionlessly off the bottom. The sand tiger appears fierce because of its three rows of narrow, long, three-pronged teeth, which are easily visible since this shark often swims with its mouth open. Although its teeth are adapted to feed on small fishes, they give the sand tiger a savage appearance. Interestingly, the sand tiger sheds its teeth completely every two weeks or so. The sand tiger is light brown in colour, with bronze-coloured backs, a white abdomen and very often has red spots on its flanks; its body is stout, with two large, fleshy dorsal fins. Its nose is short, flat, and almost upturned. The sand tiger is smaller than the tiger shark, with a maximum length of approximately 11 feet. It is considered more common than the tiger shark, as well. It can be found in shallow bays, sandy coastal areas or near rocky reefs out to depths of 650 feet. The sand tiger species is not considered very dangerous because of its sluggish, nocturnal habits and teeth unsuitable for taking large prey. It is generally thought of as a gentle shark that is not dangerous unless provoked. Divers say their encounters with the sand tigers are awe-inspiring and they often come away with a greater appreciation of sharks in general after experiencing their grace first hand.
The sand tiger shark is one species of shark that has been chased and slaughtered simply because of its threatening appearance. This harmless species has been practically extinguished in individual regions of the world. It remains to be seen if the protective measures introduced in several countries will prove to be effective. The physical appearance of a sand tiger shark strongly reflects the many prejudices which people tend to have about sharks: large, with permanently visible, long and dagger-formed teeth. In reality, however, sand tiger sharks are completely harmless. They have extremely small eyes, but no nickhaut (the third eyelid which it can pull over its eyes, a feature found in other predatory sharks, e.g. with grey sharks).In addition to its prominent teeth, its equally sized dorsal fins are considered another typical feature. Sand tiger sharks are probably the most common type of shark found in public aquariums, where some sand tigers have survived for up to 10 years. (Most large sharks have a short life span in captivity and sadly unlike their cousins in the open sea usually die quickly.)
The Leopard Shark.
The Leopard sharks belong to the shark family Triakidae, which are a species of hound sharks. This species is found on the Pacific Coast of North West America. They are distinctively marked with dark brown spots on a silvery grey background. They have many small, sharp teeth equipped with points long enough to puncture the skin. The leopard shark is a very slim animal with a narrow head. Its reproduction is ovoviviparous (producing eggs that develop within the body and hatch within or immediately after extrusion from the parent) with up to thirty pups per litter. The Leopard shark may grow up to a length of six feet (two metres), but normally ranges from between three to six feet, (one to two metres) long. The leopard shark lives on the Pacific Coast, hiding in coral and rocky outcrops. It likes to live around coral because it gives it protection and there is always a good food source. When the shark dies, its body helps form more coral for other generations, the body providing food for many of the reef creatures. The Leopard sharks adapt to their environment by the design of their skin colour. They use their skin to hide in the coral and rocks, their skin blending in
with their environment as camouflage. Migrating is another adaptation for the sharks on the Pacific Coast. They migrate from the coast of California to the northern bays of the USA. The Leopard shark is hunted for its sweet meat and it is a good trophy. This is the main reason that they hide in the coral reefs. When they are caught, their young learn to do everything on their own. Harmless to humans, the Leopard shark is usually slow moving; it is also a shy shark and likes to linger above muddy or sandy bottoms. They often travel in large groups, making themselves vulnerable to fishing. Leopard sharks eat a variety of prey including fish, shrimp, clams and crabs. As their teeth are small and pointed, they are well suited for the crustaceans and shellfish they prefer. Unlike fish, which lay millions of unfertilised eggs, many species of shark give birth to live young. Female leopard sharks give birth to 4-to-30 pups during April and May. Once abundant, they, like most sharks, are becoming less common primarily from sport and commercial fishing.
The Nurse Shark.
The Nurse shark (Ginglymostoma Cirratum) is one of the worlds most popular shark and it is admired by divers the world over. It is a large, sluggish, bottom-dwelling, docile shark that is generally harmless unless provoked. It has a very strong jaw, a stout body, and a wide head with its obvious barbels (thin, fleshy, whisker-like organs on its lower jaw just in front of the nostrils that sense touch and taste). The fourth and fifth gill slits are very close together; its dorsal fins (on the shark’s back) are almost the same size and are rounded. Behind each eye there is a spiracle, an organ that takes in water used for breathing when the shark rests at the bottom. The Nurse sharks skin is a dark, grey-brown on top and some sharks, especially the young, have spot and it is smooth to the touch, unlike most sharks.
They are nocturnal hunters that rest during the day in their groups/schools, sometimes piled together on the bottom. Divers can approach a Nurse shark quite closely, but, as with all animals, they should not provoke a resting Nurse shark. They certainly can bite!
Although the two barbels on the nostrils characterize the Nurse shark, they are perhaps most easily recognized by their behaviour. You can find them motionless under rocky outcrops, under ledges and overhangs or in shallow caves under coral reef.
No one is sure how they got their name; Possibly, it might be because they make a sucking sound that is a little like the sound of a nursing baby. Possibly, some bygone observer watched a shark giving birth to live young and thought the shark was giving nurse to its young. Possibly the use of the word sprang from the old notion that a shark would protect its young by taking them into its mouth. None of these is sure but the name, although strange, characterises this shark.
Nurse sharks normally range in size from about 2 – 13 feet (0.75 – 4 m) long. They have been found bigger though, the largest around 14 feet (4.25 m) long. The nurse shark has thousands of replaceable teeth, which are serrated, and fan shaped; the teeth are arranged in rows that rotate into position when one is needed (when older ones are broken or lost). They are capable of crushing the shellfish that is part of their normal diet. Nurse sharks normally feed on bottom-dwelling fish, shrimp, squid, octopus, crabs, sea snails, lobster, sea urchins, and coral. The barbels on the lower jaw helping the shark locate this potential food as most of its hunting is done at night.
Nurse sharks live in warm waters and are shallow-water sharks (going from the surface to 230 feet = 70 m deep). They are bottom-dwellers, living near sandy beaches, mudflats, and sandbars. Nurse sharks are found in the western Atlantic Ocean and the eastern Pacific Ocean and are common in coral reefs. Nurse reproduce via a process called ’Aplacental Viviparity’. This is where the eggs develop inside the body of the mother after internal fertilization and than hatches within the body of the mother. A litter can consist of 20-30 pups that are tiny replicas of the adult. Nurse sharks reach maturity after about 15 to 20 years old.
My Thoughts on the Event
At first I had been a little apprehensive about the authenticity of diving with sharks in a tank rather than open water. Not a lot of room to get away, but one look at the twelve sharks and numerous stingrays swimming about soon took away these fears. Sadly it replaced them with much more logical ones. So there was me, Rob Bennett (Our guide for the dive), a safety diver (Margret- rear guard cover) and the other three of our group. As we enter the water, I’m sure that I hear someone humming: ’Dum dum. Dum dum.’ in some dulcet tone (theme from Jaws for the un-initiated) – or was it just the gentle beating of my heart in my ears – not the best way to start the dive. On the bottom, we started to stroll into the main tank – all I could see was Rob standing with arms spread and a shark just in front. My thoughts were mixed; lunch was served, where’s my camera. I could see those soul-less eyes staring towards me – stand your ground Rob, I’m right behind you. One of the tigers glides past, only a couple of feet away, its mouth slightly open to show three rows of razor-sharp teeth, was that rotting flesh from a previous feed lodged between each one. Thankfully, it moves on above us. I turn around and there was the group of spectators grinning and watching, transfixed through the tunnel windows. Half-hearted I attempted to show some bravado and waved, I swear I see one of them thinking to his self: ’What’s that frightened man doing in the tank with the big fish?’ After the initial shock of seeing the first one and the relief at its passing, I realise that the sharks aren’t remotely interested in me other than as a curio that’s entered their underwater world. I now had time to enjoy the rest of my experience and tried to watch the sharks as they glided effortlessly around the large tank whilst I walked clumsily under the burden of additional weights. Kneeling down, standing up, playing follow the leader. Attempting to bury the reef fish in the sand. Doing all this and listening intently for the various taps of the bolts to signal us to duck when either of the guide divers spotted one approaching from behind. All happening within what seemed like just a couple of minutes, but was actually thirty-five or more. We were back at our entry point and the return trip to the surface some minutes later, I remain stunned into silence at the awesome sights that I had encountered, but only for a few moments. I have to get over it – I would soon be reliving the experience with my friends, each trying to better the other with their recollection of their encounter with the sharks and what they saw.
Time now for the return trip home as this visit and experience was now over. Memories would have to be sufficient until the next exciting experience took its place. Kit needed to be washed, dismantled and reloaded in the car. We had to shower and get dressed, cameras had to be carefully packed away. All before we could find somewhere to slate the thirst and hunger pangs we all now felt. A final goodbye to Rob, Margret and their team and we were off.
The Team – Wet and Dry
What did I think of the experience?
It is an expensive event (if you are paying) – 60 squids a diver (April 2003) before adding any additional expenses like travel, food and accommodation (if you decide to stay overnight).
They could improve the experience by supplying a fish recognition slate to the divers. Then your group could have a competition on the number of species that you could recognise.
They hold a brief, but no de-brief of the experience. I know they would get lots of feedback on ways to improve the experience and lots of praise for what they have given.
The experience is short, but it is memorable and you get a certificate saying you have ’Dived with the Sharks’
The round trip from Bristol is a long and tiring one (thanks Nigel for driving); we left at 1.30 in the afternoon and got back at around 2.30 in the morning.
Would I do it again? – You bet I would. I would even pay next time.
Copyright © 2008 Bristol Aerospace Sub-Aqua Club