TACOMA, Wash. (Tacoma News Tribune via the Associated Press) - Sharks might have a bad rap with some but officials at Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium insist it's the sharks that usually face danger when they cross paths with humans.
Hoping to shift public perception, the Tacoma zoo is debuting an attraction where people can swim with the sharks in the South Pacific Aquarium's 240,000-gallon salt water tank. The idea is to offer a fun experience that also will spark interest and awareness.
The new Eye-to-Eye Shark Dive will open Friday but reservations are required. Adventure seekers can choose between a cage dive and a scuba dive.
"It will be hard for sharks to swim by and look you in the eye and you not think of them as amazing animals that deserve our caring and protection," assistant dive officer Heidi Wilken said. "Folks are often afraid of sharks but really, we're afraid for sharks."
She said it's natural for some people to feel nervous about getting in the water with sharks, but they're generally gentle creatures.
Not everybody needs convincing.
Nearly 400 people have made reservations for an underwater close-up with the 17 sharks and dozens of fish in the tank.
Kayla Plummer-Backus, 23, wrangled the first dive for herself, her best friend and their boyfriends. The foursome will don dry suits Friday morning and dip into the warm water to peer closely at six species of sharks, including a 450-pound lemon shark.
"I'm so excited. I've been counting the days," Plummer-Backus said this week. "People are afraid of them but that doesn't even faze me. It's been a dream to shark dive."
Zoo officials are betting other people feel the same way.
The cage dive experience is available for anyone over age 8. Scuba divers must have certification but no experience is necessary for the cage dive. Wilken and head dive officer Gavin Wuttken are specially trained to assist anyone with a disability and the facility is ADA-accessible.
The costs of adding the attraction have been minimal. The zoo hired a second dive officer and spent about $197,000 to install a cage in the aquarium and construct the building. In-house crews kept the price tag low by doing the work themselves.
Crews began working about a year ago on a small building next to the aquarium where participants can shower or wash their clothes if needed after the dive. It's also where divers will learn about the perils sharks face and be asked to sign a pledge protecting them.
Washington is one of eight states that ban the sale of shark products.
About 38 million sharks are stripped of their fins each year and dumped back into the ocean, where they sink and drown, according to zoo deputy director John Houck. The fins are used to make shark fin soup, a delicacy in Eastern cultures.
"The highest motivation for us is to tell a story about what's happening to sharks," he said about the new attraction. "It's a story about emptying the oceans and mass harvesting, and most people don't know about it."
Zoo officials hope divers will connect with the sharks and help conservation efforts.
Those who pay for the pleasure will see nurse sharks, lemon sharks, sandbar sharks, blacktip reef sharks, a Japanese Wobbegong, Crevalle jacks, butterflyfish, horse-eye jacks, clown fish and many more.
During the four daily dives, Wilken and Wuttken will help visitors identify the creatures with an underwater microphone.
Plummer-Backus, who has never seen the South Pacific Aquarium, said she has no notions about what to expect.
"I'm going to see what it is and jump in and do it," she said.