Like most divers, I love any opportunity get up close and personal with megafauna: sharks, rays and turtles. So the Shark Dive Xtreme experience on offer at Manly Sea Life Sanctuary, which allows you to get close enough for eye contact, certainly appeals.
It appeals all the more, because it also allows an opportunity for me to dive with my fifteen year old offspring and introduce them to the wonders of the underwater world in a controlled environment. It’s an exciting way to get Kena interested in scuba diving and to demonstrate that these fearsome sharks may swallow you whole – but only if you’re a fish.
The first thing to note is that the Manly Sea Life Sanctuary is just that – a sanctuary for sea life not an aquarium. Its residents are either marine creatures that have been rescued, or they were born here. Upstairs are the fluffy, cute little fairy penguins whose local population is still declining; in the middle are local and tropical reef dwellers, and downstairs are the grey nurse sharks whose population, largely thanks to public education by the likes of Manly Sea Life Sanctuary, are slowly recovering from the brink.
Before the dive we are taken into the doughnut-shaped tunnel and introduced to these residents. Individuals like Myrtle the Turtle who was rescued after swallowing a plastic bag and still has weights glued to her shell to help with a buoyancy. A stingray with a DNA imbalance that requires medication to stopping him breaking out in painful nodules, and seven fearsome-looking grey nurse sharks.
In contrast, the dive staff are some of the friendliest I’ve ever met! Their job is to ensure that guests feel comfortable and confident, so that they can relax and truly enjoy the Shark Dive Xtreme experience. All guests watch a video so they know what to expect. Then we go downstairs to get kitted up in our dive gear. A maximum for divers at any time is taken into the tank with two professional dive staff. Each diver gets their own private changing cubicle with hot shower.
The water in the tank is the same temperature as the ocean outside, so being able to suit up with three layers while standing in a hot shower was a winter bonus! Now we’re comfortable, the next step is to get confident.
Those who have not dived before are taken through the three basic skills of clearing ears, mask and DV (or demand valve – that thing that divers have in their mouths to breathe the air in their tanks from). Kena mastered these skills quickly – like most 15-year-olds would – and soon we were leaving the shallow practice area for the main tank.
The thing that strikes you about the first grey nurse shark that swims directly towards you is just how big they are. The curvature of the perspex wall of the tunnel reduces the apparent size: they have a cross-section about the same as a beer keg and weigh the same as five full ones.
As part of the experience we walk around the tank (which is a bit weird for me being a diver), and throw ourselves over the top of the tunnel to stand on the wall behind it with its residents drifting past closer and closer with each circuit. It’s so tempting to reach out and stroke a passing shark, ray, turtle, wobbegong or whatever, but we remember our briefing – these are not pets, this is their sanctuary – so we keep our hands to ourselves.
Still, being buzzed by these magnificent creatures gives you a great connection and respect for them and an appreciation that we have nothing to fear from them: they are not indiscriminate man killers but actually that the converse is true and that we are the indiscriminate killers of sharks and other marine life.
Places like Manly Sea Life Sanctuary provide an essential counter-point to the media hysteria around sharks in local waters. Only with further research and an informed public can we have sensible debate on measures to be taken to reduce the number of dangerous encounters between sharks and humans.
So if you haven’t already, take yourself and some friends for an education, and if you’re up for it – an Xtreme Shark experience. You’ll find all the info you need on their website. (At time of writing there is 40% off if you book on-line).