It was an encounter of the close kind.
I was 12 feet below the surface of the water, trying to remember to breathe, mesmerized by a school of fish swimming above me.
Then I saw a sizable shark swoosh past me on the right.
I held my breath, jerked my head and watched as he went about his business.
A sandbar shark approached from the front, possibly wondering what the blond woman in the yellow dry suit was doing in his home.
Not to worry, I was an invited guest.
This was the South Pacific Aquarium at Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium and I was trying the new Beyond the Cage attraction, which allows
swimming among the sharks outside of a protective cage.
The exhibit will open Thursday (Oct. 8), two years after the Tacoma zoo launched its first shark-diving program.
More than 6,000 people have tried that, spending a half hour immersed in a 12-by-4-foot cage for the Eye-to-Eye Shark Dive.
Certified scuba divers could opt for a more personal experience that allowed them into the 225,000-gallon tank with no barricade from the 16 sharks that live inside.
Zoo officials said they started Beyond the Cage — the first of its kind in the nation — so people who aren’t certified can have the same experience.
“People want to be closer to the sharks, they want a closer experience,” said dive officer Heidi Wilken. “Sharks are cool and amazing, but not threatening.”
The idea is to change people’s perceptions about sharks being scary and educate them that one-third of shark species are threatened.
In the hour or so that divers spend beyond the cage, 4,377 sharks are killed for their fins, Wilken said.
The entire experience lasts about 90 minutes. First there’s a crash course in shark biology and behaviors so a swimmer knows what to look for while in the water.
This was my second time to go swimming near the sharks. I’d done it two years ago — inside the cage — when covering the opening of the eye-to-eye attraction.
I slipped into a dry suit, practiced breathing with a mask and air-supply hose, added an extra 28 pounds on a weight belt and got wet.
It took several minutes to adjust. I had to remind myself not to breathe out of my nose.
It was hard to hear the dive guides through an underwater speaker system so I tried to exhale quieter and not blow so many air bubbles.
Jessica Nordstrom, a dive officer, opened the cage door and I floated to a bar for participants to hold.
The bar not only offers stability, it also keeps divers from getting too close to the viewing area glass or reef so sharks and fish can swim freely around you.
“Our sharks are not afraid,” dive officer Anthony Pennington had said. “They’ll come right up to you to interact with you.”
A nurse shark came so close to a fellow diver that it touched the back of his head. Another swam giant circles around us. A pair settled on the bottom of the tank about 3 feet to my left.
I stared at the slits near their mouths opening and closing, remembering what Wilken told me about nurse sharks breathing through buccal pumping, where muscles near their mouths pull water in over their gill membranes and out the gill slits.
I was entranced.
A golden crevalle jack nicknamed Trevor approached within inches, inquisitively darting above my head. Damselfish stayed close to the bottom, sometimes circling Pennington’s legs.
The world quieted. I stopped thinking about my breathing, what the dive guides were saying and which sharks were which.
I stared. The sharks swam.
It wasn’t just beyond the cage, it was beyond belief.
Stacia Glenn: 253-597-8653
If you go
Cost: $80 for members of the Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium; $95 for nonmembers. Includes general admission and a souvenir towel.
Requirements: Must be in good health and complete a health questionnaire. Maximum weight 275 pounds.
Restriction: Participants must first do the cage dive to ensure they are comfortable in the water. No personal cameras allowed. Pregnant visitors cannot dive.
Ages: 10 and up.
Gear: Supplied. Prescription masks available.
Program: 75 minutes; four participants at most per dive.