Sophie’s Shark Dive

“On a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being, ‘This is the best day of my life,’ how excited are you for the Shark Dive?” I asked Sophie as we were driving for an early lunch at Chick-fil-A.

Sophie thought about her answer just long enough to make me wonder if I needed to repeat the question.

“8.”

Her answer immediately made me think of the emergency room routine by Brian Regan and I started laughing as I drove.

“Do you think the sharks have any names?” I asked.

For the love of all things Nemo, one of the sharks needs to be named Bruce.

An underwater experience is perfect for Sophie the Hufflepuff, who is easily overwhelmed with loud noises, who seeks artistic inspiration from all parts of the natural world.

For her 15th birthday, Sophie was going to dive with the sharks at Wonders of Wildlife, the amazing aquatic and museum experience created by Bass Pro Shops founder, Johnny Morris. My family has a membership to the museum and I have several personal favorites.

The blue, humphead wrasse that shares a tank with the creepy, green moray eel.

The playful otters.

Athena the Octopus.

The albino alligator.

And the bears near the end, which are surely a tribute to Dwight Schrute.

I signed her up for the “feeding frenzy,” which meant we had to wait a couple weeks for her to suit up and descend in the cage. Considering the Washington Nationals World Series Championship and Baby Shark phenomena, thanks to Gerardo Parra, the timing for her dive was quite appropriate.  

While we were at lunch, I met Keifer and Meagan, two of the divers who would be leading Sophie’s underwater escapade.

“Any advice?” I asked.

“Does she like water?” Keifer asked.

I nodded affirmatively. In less than a week, Sophie will be practicing on her high school swim team.

“Tell her not to stick her hand through the cage and she’ll have a great time.”

* * * *

Last summer, in the middle of Catch 365, my family spent a couple days at the ocean, after playing catch with Aaron and the Daytona Tortugas. On one of the days, while we were first walking into the salty waves, I thought I saw something out of the corner of my eye that looked like a dorsal fin. I tried to ignore it, but drastically slowed down my entrance. Moments later, I saw it again. I made quick mention to Jamie that I wanted to go check in with the lifeguard, trying not to worry Kaylea and Sophie.

I stood at the foot of the lifeguard’s ladder and shielded my eyes from the sun. “I’m from Missouri, so I know this will sound stupid and ignorant, but I thought I saw a dorsal fin a couple of times. Do I need to be concerned?”

“No sir, you don’t need to worry at all. Those are just the dolphins hanging around. You won’t see the sharks.”

His answer did not alleviate my fears whatsoever.

Bethany was our guide for the day, meeting us at the glass elevator in the lobby, which surely is a tribute to Willy Wonka. Bethany is a level 5 diver, having been certified since 2013 and studied marine biology in college. Working at WOW has been a good fit for her, where she spends time educating others through her passion (and also cleaning the tanks before the museum opens) while being close to her younger siblings. In the spring of 2018, she dove off the coast of South Africa and swam with the sharks. In the open. Without a cage. I saw her video of the curious mako shark who bumped into her camera.

Sophie was joined by Colton, another birthday diver, and a manager from WOW I didn’t get to meet. I signed a waiver as Sophie’s legal guardian while she rinsed off and put on a wet suit, long string tied onto a zipper in the back. The entire dive crew had to watch the safety video, in which we learned the Sea Trek Helmet she would be wearing weighs 72 pounds out of the water, but only 15 pounds once she is completely submerged. We also learned six hand signals for underwater communication: Okay, Problem with ears, Problem breathing, Sitting on my knees, Going back up, Going down.

Sophie asked one question after the safety video. None of the sharks are named.

Sorry, Bruce.

While Sophie and Colton got situated in the tank, Bethany led Colton’s wife and me down below to the viewing area, where I was joined by Kaylea and her friend, Isaac. On the way, we passed the two-toed sloth, who I finally saw moving.  

There are five sharks in the tank at WOW, two sand tiger sharks and three brown sharks. The sharks have been living in this tank for about a decade and have been trained to target feed three days a week. On Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays the elasmobranch fish with a multitude of teeth eat when they see a rectangular sign placed in the corner of the tank. On the opposite side of the tank, the giant groupers feed at the same time.

On several different occasions, I have sat down to watch the peaceful meanderings of the large swimmers. Today, the tank was filled with frenetic activity.

* * * *

Sophie was handed a GoPro as she entered the cage and told to “Go crazy. Take as many pictures as you want.” In her twenty minutes, Sophie took 120 pictures. These are some.

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She was given a flash drive with all of her pictures along with a t-shirt that says, “I Survived Out To Sea Shark Dive.”

I asked again. “On a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being, ‘This is the best day of my life,’ how exciting was it?”

Sophie did not think long about her answer.

“9.5”

She’s now more excited about the thought of obtaining her license to dive much more so than her license to drive.

Which, honestly, is probably the safer of the two.

I’m certain WOW could find good use for the talents of a scuba-certified artist.