Florida on a Tankful: Face your fear: Swim with sharks

By Scott Fais, Feature Reporter
Last Updated: Friday, October 20, 2017, 6:12 AM EDT

Halloween is all about frights and screams, and in my case, sharks. Sharks and snakes have never been not my cup of tea.

"They are such mysterious creatures,” says Mike Dech, an aquarium supervisor at Discovery Cove.

Traditionally, swimming with sharks is not a wise idea. Unless it’s here, where Mike shares his passion.

"Oh, Gosh. Sharks are my favorite animal,” he said with a wide grin. "It's the reason many of us are here (working at Discovery Cove)."

And now you can get even closer than ever before. Discovery Cove's "Shark Swim" program allows visitors to become immersed in the shark's world by entering the water with them.

"The largest we have is 9 feet long," Mike says of the 20 sharks that are part of Discovery Cove’s shark family.

Here, you'll find five different breeds of sharks: nurse, blacktip reef, whitetip reef, a spotted wobbegong and a zebra shark.

The last time I tried to overcome my fear of sharks on a Tankful in 2011, it was across the street at SeaWorld in the Shark Encounter. A discontinued program allowed guests to get in a shark cage and see the sharks while underwater.

At Discovery Cove, the cage is gone, but my fear is back. Being nervous is natural Mike says as we watch the sharks behind glass first while treading water.  However, he offers this calming thought.

"They (sharks) are not going to be interested in you because humans are not on the menu for sharks,” Mike said.

Upon entering the water at Discovery Cove’s "Shark Swim," I have a seat and meet a zebra shark. The shark is comfortable in the arms of her trainer Gretchen (who ironically put me in the shark cage in 2011 and makes a return appearance in this story’s postcard). 

With Gretchen trusting the zebra shark, she puts her in my arms. The shark feels like rough sandpaper on top of her body and soft underneath. But we're not done yet.

Soon, we're saying hello to a nurse shark. Visitors may get to pet one of the purple sharks, should the shark be comfortable.

And then comes the swim. Trainers will lead groups of three at a time around the habitat. The 20 sharks inside swim freely under those wearing snorkels and life jackets, paying no attention to the humans.  

"Not only can you face your fears, but understand these animals so you can overcome those fears," Mike says. "One of the big takeaways we want people to take from this, is understanding that sharks are not the scary monsters they are portrayed to be."

Know Before You Go:
In order to swim with the sharks, you must be at least 10 years old. Those ages 10 to 13 will need an adult participating in the Shark Swim program. As a bonus, all visitors to Discovery Cove get a season pass to SeaWorld and Aquatica good through January.

Tankful on Television:
Watch Florida travel stories, like the one you just read above, on TV four days a week coast-to-coast across Florida. The award-winning Florida on a Tankful with Scott Fais airs on Spectrum News 13 and Spectrum Bay News 9 Thursday through Sunday. New segments begin airing at 6 a.m. on both Spectrum channels as an exclusive to Spectrum.

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