blue_reef_aquarium_hastings_diving_shewhosails

Diving with Sharks – Blue Reef Aquarium Hastings

Recently I got to do something that I have always wanted to do… I got to clean the shark tank in an aquarium! It may sound bizarre, but for me it has always been on the bucket list. I’ve dived with sharks all over the world in the oceans, but have always fancied climbing in to a tank with one of the most misunderstood creatures on our beautiful planet.

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Inside the Ocean tank

I actually hung up my diving fins 7 or so years ago. But when an old friend got in touch and asked if I was free to help him clean the shark tank at Blue Reef Aquarium, Hastings, you couldn’t have held me back!

Rummaging through my old dive gear in the loft, I dusted off my boots and mask… the battery was long dead in my computer, and I no longer own a reg set. Luckily my friend has some spares. My friend, Patrick Shier is actually the person that taught me to dive many many years ago. He is a pro-diver, with publications to his name, and also a freelance dive journo. And it is always and honour and pleasure to dive with him.

So why the need to dive in an aquarium?

It probably sounds a bit random, and possibly even a bit crazy. I have dived with sharks in some of the best dive spots in the world, from the Indian Ocean, to the Red Sea, and the Barrier Reef, so why on earth would I have an ambition to climb in to a tank and do it?!

The answer is, the thrill I guess?! Knowing you should be ‘scared’, if you are to believe the illusions and myths that some people believe about sharks. Knowing that you’re climbing into a tank with a powerful beast/beasts. And to prove all of those people wrong. To show no fear, in fact to show the opposite. Also to get up close to the sharks, and see them so close first hand. In the wild you can never get that close.

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Some of the beautiful fish in the aquarium shark tank

Leafing through my old dive log, I was reminded of an incredible  encounter I had with a Tiger Shark in the Red Sea many years ago…. It was the second dive of the day at the end of a fantastic live-aboard dive holiday. We were near the end of a dive on the stunning Yolanda reef, when out of the deep blue a 4m Tiger Shark appeared and at considerable pace swam towards us.

It circled us and then slowly and peacefully swam away… keeping a safe distance, hearts racing we followed, wanting to be in the presence of this incredible animal a little longer. But it went deep and most of us were at our deco limit. Not wanting to risk the bends we stopped following the shark at about 30 metres…as the shark dropped to 35m, then 45m and beyond. Alas, when we surfaced you could not shut us up, it was one of the best experiences of my life. Adrenaline was well and truly pumping.

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An extract from my dive log: clearly showing my excitement as a tiger Shark joined us on a dive near Yolanda reef, Egypt

Diving in the shark tank at Blue Reef, Hastings…

I wasn’t nervous at all. I didn’t know what to expect, what type of sharks there would be, or how many. But I knew it would be fun and that I would be fine.

The tank is huge, the centre piece of the aquarium with a big tunnel through the middle, a main viewing window and two further windows. Our job was to get in, give it a good scrub (windows, faux coral, and gravel bottom), all without disturbing the fish too much.

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The ‘ocean tank’ at Blue Reef Aquarium Hastings

The tank is beautiful – full of puffer fish, box fish, trigger fish, surgeon fish, and all sorts of stunning marine life. The tank is vibrantly colourful, shimmering with exotic fish (my pictures do not do it justice I’m afraid).

The sharks unfortunately were not out in force, the main attraction (a huge reef shark) was recently moved to a different aquarium – with two new sharks expected to arrive in the Summer. So there was just one lone shark in the tank, a mesmerising Nursehound shark.

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The Nursehound shark at Blue Reef Aquarium

I was more wary of the fish than I was of the shark… most of the fish in the Ocean tank, will bite, sting or rip your skin to shreds! The Nursehound, on the contrary was so peaceful, taking refuge under a coral ledge. He largely ignored the intrusion of having 3 humans in his tank.

My first job was to scrub the main window. This was so much fun – who knew that window cleaning could be so fun?! Carefully positioning myself between the coral and the glass, I started gently brushing the window, posing for photos and waving at the families on the other side, seeing how happy they were to see us in the tank. It made me smile… these children are surrounded by people every day, so to see their faces light up when they saw people in the tank was so ironic when there are such beautiful marine creatures to be looking at instead!

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Me in the shark tank, scrubbing brush in hand…

As I was cleaning, I kept a close watch around me for the various fish. I befriended a White Spotted Puffer fish. He stayed with me for most of the dive. But I had to keep moving away from him, as I was worried he would ‘puff’ and I know how this puts strain on their hearts… and I didn’t want to be responsible for that… he looked such a lovely old fish.

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My new friend – white spotted puffer at Blue Reef Aquarium

I did gain one small injury in the tank – a laceration to my little finger… this I think was the gift of a surgeon fish. Surgeon fish basically have a built in razor blade which if it touches you, effectively slashes you. I didn’t see it happen, I just felt it! But all is fair, I was in their home tank, and it is just natures way.

A word on sharks…

Blue Reef Aquarium, Hastings has strong conservation links and do all they can to promote conservation and protection of sharks and marine life. If you’re interested in finding out more then check out The Shark Trust, who they work closely with.

Sharks are incredible, powerful, misunderstood creatures. I firmly believe that we need to change perceptions, and that we also need to stop finning from happening. It is estimated that 75 – 100 million sharks a year are killed for their fins. This has got to stop.

The deep blue beckons…

I absolutely loved the experience of diving in the shark tank, I hope to dive the tank again when the new sharks arrive – if I do, I will share some pictures then.

It may have only been a short and shallow dive (approx. an hour, 80 bar of air used), but it reminded me exactly why I used to dive and what about diving I love so much. The peace, quiet, tranquillity, escape from hustle and bustle, the disconnect, the beautiful fish and marine life… I could go on and on. But one thing is for sure, I have fallen back in love with diving, and my fins most certainly will not be returning to the loft any time soon. There is however one thing I don’t miss, but I can live with… diving hair!

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Check out the matted hair! The love of the water is worth it though…

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