Swim with the sharks in Korea

by Allison Dixon
Groove Korea (groovekorea.com)

Imagine your average, run-of-the-mill aquarium. There are fish, sharks and other assorted marine life displayed in a variety of tanks and enclosures. Each creature on display has its own plaque detailing eating, sleeping and other living habits in thorough, if not always interesting, detail. Imagine you are in this aquarium and you are standing in front of the glass wall of a very large tank, where a massive shark swims majestically in front of you. You admire its strength, grace and size.

Now imagine there is no glass wall. There is nothing separating you from that shark and, instead of swimming gracefully in front of you, it is swimming straight at your head.

This is the primary difference between most aquariums and the Busan Aquarium.

Busan Aquarium’s shark dive program was initiated when the aquarium opened in 2001 and offers more adventurous visitors the opportunity to don scuba gear and explore the inside of the shark tank. Patrons can get up close and personal with grey nurse sharks, black tip sharks, Queensland giant groupers and stingrays.

All of this, of course, begs the question: How safe can it possibly be to climb into a tank full of sharks?

Michael Jones, an instructor at Busan Aquarium’s shark dive program, assures guests that the shark dive program is completely safe. “There are over 600 different species of shark, and three of those are responsible for over 90 percent of attacks on humans,” he says. “None of those three species are at the aquarium.”

The shark dive program includes an in-water training session before the dive, so even those with no previous scuba experience can sign up. Training focuses on learning how to use scuba gear, general safety information and rules of conduct. The amount of time spent in the shark tank is less than an hour, but it's a half-day activity due to pre-dive paperwork and in-pool scuba training. Also, admission to the aquarium is included, so divers can take some time to check out the rest of the exhibits as well.

While in the shark tank, divers do not wear fins on their feet, and they are also weighted down to offset the buoyancy of the scuba tank. As a result, the whole experience is less like traditional scuba diving and more like a strange underwater moon walk, in which sharks and other marine life swirl around the divers’ heads almost weightlessly.

Underwater cameras and video recorders are available for rent to record the experience. For a more tangible souvenir, Jones encourages divers to scavenge the tank floor for shark teeth, which are always in abundant supply as a shark continually sheds and regrow its teeth throughout its lifetime.

Divers might want to wave to the many tourists and locals gawking at them from the other, drier side of the glass, but Jones suggests caution here. Divers are told to avoid waving their arms around — keeping them at their sides instead — as scuba masks lack peripheral vision and sharks and other fish sometimes swim quite closely around people. A badly timed wave of the arm could result in a rather shocking and unsettling invasion of space for both diver and shark. 

That said, Jones assures those interested in signing up for the shark dive not to worry: “In around nine years of diving, I have taken close to 3,000 people through the aquarium — incident free,” he says.

Directions: Haeundae Station (Busan Subway Line 2), Exit 3 or 5 — then walk 10 minutes towards Haeundae Beach.

Online: Go to www.busanaquarium.com

Groove Korea website

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