Tanks for the Memories

It’s not the great whites out in the open water but close encounters in Adventure Aquarium’s shark tank that get your pulse racing.

Mom was mostly silent as I told her over the phone that I’d be swimming with the sharks at Adventure Aquarium on the Camden waterfront. Before beginning another futile attempt to get her first-born on a first-name basis with common sense, she said, “Your dad says we’re coming. So we can say goodbye.”

I recount the conversation to Paula and our boys. “Gramps is funny,” Zach says before adding, “I’m hungry. Like a shark!” He’s funny too.

For once, he and his brother, Luke, see dad more as “Crocodile Hunter” than magazine dweeb. For weeks, I was barely able to contain my enthusiasm, undaunted by Shark Week broadcasts reminding me that captivity doesn’t turn el tiburón into a guy who lets you tickle his belly. There’d be no rethinking. For me, anyway. My pal Sean was going to swim too, but he was cunning enough to will his wife, Josie, into giving birth three days before we were to zip up the wetsuits. But Paula and Josie decided that the kids, newborn included, shouldn’t miss their dads’ pretending to be brave.

From the invitation to the big day, I figured that of the dumb things I’ve done, this wouldn’t crack the top 50. They do this dozens of times each week—folks over 12 can plunk down $145 for the session—and surely, these sharks eat more often than a guy at a tailgate party. “It doesn’t matter how much they eat,” says Darrin Plumlee midway through his 30-minute lecture in the classroom next to the tank. “They’re always looking for something more. See you later, chum.” Oh. I get it. Thanks.

Sean and I are prepping with Lance Cockrell, who gives us tips on retaining the limbs we arrived with. All the while, the sharks swim by like bullies sizing up a small-boned kid in study hall. “Don’t lean over the edge,” he says, “and if they close in on you, don’t make any sudden movements.” I add to that my own credo: Don’t soil the wetsuit. Lance is casual but no-nonsense. Why wouldn’t he be calm? He’s armed with a one-foot piece of PVC piping to fend off unwanted advances. Note to self: Rework that “dumb things” list.

I submerge partially, my head on a constant swivel as I scan for anything that might be hungry. I can hear the hum of the water filtration system, the chatter of instructors and family. But when I submerge completely, I hear only my own breathing and see green sawfish, schools of small fish, kids waving to us from behind the glass. About a foot away, I see two beady black eyes—afterthoughts wedged into a massive body—and three rows of scalpel-like teeth! Then the guppy makes a hard left. I hope Lance mistakes my bout of hysterical paralysis for bravery. Sean and I spend the next 30 minutes emboldened, captivated by the grace of these eating machines and so awed by our proximity that we don’t notice a smallish sandbar shark sidle into the reef. He evidently deems us unappetizing before retreating. In between, we migrate to a wading pool to mingle with the stingrays, which are some of the most social animals we’ve ever encountered; it’s just a coincidence that we have fistfuls of fish heads.

We dawdle, not ready to end the hour, while Lance patiently ushers us back to the platform. Maybe that pipe was for us…. The staff shares our enthusiasm, and once we shower and dress, they hand us T-shirts that read Shark Chum.

As Sean and I chat excitedly, Paula and Josie look at us with that Jesus, they’re really just a couple of little kids look as we gauge whether the kids were impressed.

“Yeah, it was awesome,” they say. “Let’s go see the hippos!

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