Sharkbait: Eye To Eye In The Tank

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Films like The Little Mermaid, Finding Nemo and Shark Tale have turned many a fan into an avid ocean lover, one who would want to experience life in the deep blue sea. If you have ever wondered what it would be like to swim with the sharks, the Long Island Aquarium has got you covered.

According to Darlene Puntillo, the aquarium’s marketing and advertising director, the shark dive experience, where guests can get up close and personal with sharks, has been around for about 10 years.

“A lot of people do it as a bucket list type of thing; they either love sharks and want to get up close to them or are terrified of them and want to put their fears to rest. It’s a really great way to get a deeper appreciation for these animals,” she said. “It also gives people an eye towards conserving their habitat. Sharks don’t bite people because they’re on the menu, it’s always an accident. We want guests to love them the way we do.”

Before I donned a wetsuit, water shoes and weighted belt, an aquarist—what employees are called—gave us a safety briefing on what to expect. I had my trepidations before entering the tank. Nothing about the sharks or being underwater, just how I would be able to breathe underwater for 20 minutes. A recent snorkeling excursion in St. Lucia left me frustrated and panicked when my mask kept filling with water and I couldn’t calmly breathe through my mouth without my nose. Fortunately, my concerns were eased with a new mask that many divers will soon be using.

“The mask is a little bit different than normal recreational scuba diving where you’re normally wearing just a mask and a separate regulator to breathe from,” said my aquarist and dive instructor, Rachael Vietheer of the mask that is a full face mask by the manufacturer OTS. “These cool masks make it really easy for someone who’s never been underwater before because it allows them to breathe through their nose or their mouth, making it a little more comfortable. The other benefit is that it has communication so we can talk to each other.”

After putting on all of the equipment, I went into the cage and was lowered into a 120,000 gallon tank that was about 12 feet deep. I was told to go down on my knees to test the mask and my breathing to make sure I was comfortable before being fully lowered underwater for 20 minutes. If a diver panics, the cage is simply raised and if there is an emergency, the latch on the top of the cage is opened.

Depending on the experience, divers can choose to ask questions about the sharks and their tankmates, or choose to observe silently and enjoy the peace and quiet.

Unfortunately, we could not feed the sharks as that is a separate encounter done via pole feeding about three times a week at 4: 20 p.m. in the afternoon. Puntillo said they are fed about 5-7 pounds of food per week and enjoy feasting on herring, mackerel, blue fish and sometimes squid.

“The dive masters take really good care of the sharks, as they are their wards and their charges,” said Puntillo, adding that the shark were found off the coast of Jones Beach 16 years ago and have grown quite large, about 12-feet in length. “We have four sand tiger sharks—the two females are named Bumps and Bertha and the two males are Drummer and Treadfin—those are the big guys swimming around, four nurse sharks, one of which has been donated to us by actor Tracey Morgan, when it outgrew his tank at home, and then we have two Wobbegong sharks.”

There are also some giant southern stingrays, a Queensland Grouper named Ed and a variety of other fish in the tank as well.

I felt quite safe with my dive instructor, who is certified in scuba diving and has her instructor’s certification, which allows her to take non-certified people underwater.

“I’ve been doing this program for three years. We have a ton of redundancy here so if anything goes wrong we have two backups,” said Vietheer. “The only thing that would spook the sharks is if they were touched. They don’t have any bones so they can bend in half faster than you can blink.”

Divers are encouraged to take video and pictures, but must keep their hand on a safety bar at all times. If your fingers wrap around the bars of the cage, they can become food or a shark can brush up against you. I forgot a few times and my instructor simply tapped my shoulder to remind me to keep my hands on the bar and to keep the camera inside the cage.

It was quite beautiful to see these creatures up close. Aside from snorkeling, it was the closest I have ever been to marine life and it does give you a deeper understanding and appreciation from them. So thank you to the aquarium for an experience I will never forget.

The shark dive encounter program is run throughout the year, but June to December is the high season. Up to 10 people a day can sign up and the only requirement? You must be 12-years-old.

Want to dive with the sharks? Call 631-208-9200 or visit www.longislandaquarium.com to book a dive. The Long Island Aquarium is located at 431 E Main St., Riverhead.

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Jennifer Fauci is the Managing Editor of Long Island Weekly and editor of the Massapequa Observer and Levittown Tribune. Growing up in nearby Seaford and attending MacArthur High School, Jennifer is well-versed in the local aspects of her communities. Her passion for literature, travel and the arts lend to the unique content in Long Island Weekly. In her time at Anton, she has received first place in the Folio Awards, second place for the NYPA awards and is the recipient of three PCLI awards.

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