I grew up in Florida, and my shark-aversion stemmed from the many summers I spent in New Smyrna Beach -- a small, dope town where I first learned to surf, but also the primary Google result for “shark bite capital.”
For the uninitiated, New Smyrna Beach boasts some of the best breaks on the East coast of the United States. The chief spot is Ponce Inlet, where a jetty creates semi-permanent sand bar that bolsters the incoming swells on its south side. But stagnant sand also means murky water, which sharks really dig (because of how their vision works, they actually see better in grittier shallows). So, in New Smyrna, the sharks are also drawn to Ponce Inlet, where they prowl the shore for something soft to latch onto, and incidentally chomp on surfers on the regular. In fact, that happens more often in New Smyrna than anywhere else on the planet.
At 10am I checked in at the Aquarium’s front desk and was taken to a set of spiral stairs near concealed by a heavy black curtain. My only companion was a nice lady named Chloe, who wore a pair of rainboots and teal polo shirt embroidered with the London Aquarium logo. But her real authority was made clear by her broad knowledge of sharks.
“This tank is approximately 900,000 liters, and we keep it around 23 degrees.”
She smiled at me, then handed over a wet suit, booties, a snorkel and a mask.
“How many, uh, sharks? I mean, how many are in the tank?”
“We have two sand tigers, two Atlantic brown sharks, two black tips, and a grey reef and a nurse shark. Oh, and a bow mouth. Even though it looks like a shark, it’s technically considered to be a ray, like a stingray.” She pointed to it; it could have fooled me.
As I stared out into the water, I noticed a rectangular cage that looked roughly the dimensions of a four-door car, and was made of loosely braided nylon rope lashed to a transparent plastic bottom. Looking beyond it, I quickly became transfixed by the dozen or so toothy brutes gliding through the blue, cruising around in vaguely ominous circles.
“Has anyone, you know, freaked out? Like they just couldn’t handle it?”
“Well, we’ve had a few people that get a bit scared. But if they’re with other people, then usually they get over it by the end of the session. A few times we’ve had people who are going through some sort of immersion therapy, who are gradually exposing themselves to sharks to get over their fear of them.”
“I’m not scared,” I said, unconvincingly.
“Right then... do you want to go ahead and get changed?”