Get a close encounter with the sharks at Dubai Aquarium and Underwater Zoo

Dubai Aquarium and Underwater Zoo’s new Shark Encounter Experience was launched last month, as part of an ongoing campaign to educate people about the importance of these underwater predators.

Amanda Tomlinson tries out the Shark Encounter Experience. Courtesy Amanda Tomlinson
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Dubai is the home to some fairly cool and somewhat extreme experiences.

You can snowboard and Zorb down an artificial ski slope in a mall. You can zip line off a tall building, past the world’s tallest building. And now you can go cage diving with sharks.

Dubai Aquarium and Underwater Zoo’s new Shark Encounter Experience was launched last month, as part of an ongoing campaign to educate people about the importance of these underwater predators. They want people to see that sharks are not so scary and do not really want to eat you.

Participants on the Shark Encounter are lowered in a large cage into the aquarium, until they are about 4.5 metres below the surface. Once in position, two scuba divers feed the sharks pieces of fish through the bars.

The bottom and two sides of the cage are made of toughened glass for unobstructed viewing, while the other two sides have bars, which keep the sharks out, but not the smaller, curious fish that swim in, out and around the cage.

Once the feeding starts, there is a frenzy of fins as fish compete with the sharks for food – but the sharks always have first bite. The zebra sharks, which ironically have spots rather than stripes, seem to be the greediest and spend more time at the cage than the others.

There are 10 species of shark in the aquarium, although some are more shy than others and might only be seen from a distance. But as the experience involves about half-an-hour in the water, you will have plenty of time to look out for them.

The encounter also includes an interesting tour of the aquarium’s back-of-house facilities, including its research lab, where you learn about the shark-breeding programme and the importance of sharks to the marine ecosystem.

Scuba-diving experience is not necessary, as participants wear special underwater helmets, into which air is pumped to form an air pocket.

The front and sides of the spherical helmet are clear so you can get a great view of the action – most participants will walk away without even getting their hair wet.

The experience starts with a briefing that teaches visitors what to expect, what to do (and what not to), and some simple underwater signals.

For those not used to scuba diving, or even snorkelling, breathing underwater can take a bit of getting used to, but the main thing to remember is to just breathe as normal.

A little bit of equalising of the ears is necessary, due to the increasing pressure as you go deeper below the surface, but this is no different to “popping” your ears during a flight.

What makes the Shark Encounter unique is the opportunity to see the sharks up close.

The Dubai Aquarium offers other underwater experiences – including the Shark Walker (similar to the Shark Encounter but without the feeding frenzy), and even scuba diving with sharks – but the kings of the ocean tend to keep their distance during these. So if viewing them up close is your dream, then put the Shark Encounter on your bucket list. During the feeding, you’ll be no more than a metre or two from them.

This is an easy and stress-free way to observe these commonly misunderstood creatures. The weirdest part is seeing people in the mall taking pictures of you.

• The Shark Encounter Experience costs Dh600 a person, which includes entry to the aquarium and the back-of-house tour. It is held each day at 2pm. For more details, visit www.thedubaiaquarium.com. The review was conducted at the invitation of the Dubai Aquarium and Underwater Zoo

atomlinson@thenational.ae

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