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SWIM WITH THE SHARKS, RAP WITH THE RAYS

By John Geary

During my travels, I've been hugged by an octopus, dive-bombed by a toucan and pelted with fruit by gorillas, all in the interest of researching a story. However, I never thought I'd don scuba gear to deliberately get up close and personal with a shark, let alone several sharks.

Yet that's just what I did during a trip to Maui when visiting the Ocean Center Aquarium. The Center offers certified scuba divers an opportunity to get closer to marine wildlife than just looking through glass allows.

After meeting dive master Jeff Hedlund, another diver and I took a quick behind-the-scenes tour. It involved a pre-dive briefing, learning what to expect during the dive, and the spiritual importance of sharks in Hawaiian culture.

Then it was off to the 3,000-litre tank.

I kept waiting for the sound of heavy, deep violins, playing the theme music from Jaws but I guess not everyone would see the humour in that. Some might even find it a bit unnerving before sliding into twenty-five feet of water full of reef sharks, hammerheads and a nine-foot long tiger shark.

We'd been assured that these were very docile, well-fed sharks that would not be that interested in nibbling on a couple of scuba divers.

While billed as a "Dive with the Sharks" encounter, the spotted eagle ray really steals the show. "Hihimanu" (in Hawaiian), is very tactile and lets you stroke the skin on her underbelly (it feels like wet velvet) as she swims by. You don't want to touch her top; that could provoke her to utilize the hard, sharp bony protrusion on her tail, a defence when she feels threatened.

She proved to be very gentle and very friendly.

Probably the biggest "threat" facing divers on this trip are the numerous little fish that try to grab your seafood treats before the ray vacuums these into her mouth. Pests like blue-striped snappers and triggerfish nipped my fingers; it felt rather like being nibbled to death by oysters-a minor nuisance.

As we swam around the tank, we gazed at the sharks, some of which were close enough to touch. It's hard to put into words the feeling you get when watching a shark swim closer to check you out, then veer away at the last minute, its curiosity obviously satisfied. A child-like sense of wonder and an adrenalin rush all flooded through me.

All too soon, it was time to reluctantly climb out and rejoin the land of surface dwellers.

Although the dive is open only to certified scuba divers, visitors can still experience the sensation, if not the tactile pleasures of the aquarium's shark tank. A 16-metre "underwater" acrylic tunnel allows spectators to view sea creatures from above, below and alongside.

There are also interpretive talks about the marine animals in the tank. During the presentations, professional divers feed the sharks and rays much to the delight of their audiences. Sixty other exhibits, many of them offering hands-on activities, foster a lively appreciation for marine wildlife.

IF YOU GO:

To dive with sharks: you need to make reservations at least 48 hours in advance; call 808-270-7075 or email info@mauioceancenter.com . The cost is $199 U.S. and includes a tank, weight belts and admission to the aquarium. Divers supply their own mask, fins, wet suit, etc.

General info

Hours: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., 365 days of the year.
Admission (U.S. dollars): $22 for adults, $15 for children, $19 for seniors. Children under three: free.
Phone: 808-270-7000.
Website: www.mauioceancenter.com
Mailing address: Maui Ocean Center,192 Ma'alaea Road, Wailuku, Maui, HI 96793
Getting there: The aquarium is located at Ma'alaea Harbor, off Highway 30.

Photos: John Geary

1. Chow time, Spotted Eagle Ray
2. Feeding Spotted Eagle Ray
3. Reef Shark
4. Tiger Shark
5. Hammerhead Shark

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