Swimming with the sharks

By Robin Martin

Any travel experience which is preceded by the signing of a waiver relieving the operator of all responsibility for "death or serious injury" has something going for it in my book.

But then volunteering to snorkel in a pool full of sharks probably puts me into the "has a death wish" category of tourists.

Of course I understand that I will be "entering an environment housing animals which involves a degree of unpredictability" and therefore poses a risk to my health, but surely Sea World doesn't seriously think its staff will be picking my torn flesh off the bottom of its A$13 million ($14.1 million) Shark Bay enclosure?

The Gold Coast theme park opened Shark Bay about 18 months ago and from day one has offered hardy punters a close-up experience of its star attractions.

Before entering the water our group - curiously all male and largely from inland Australia - are kitted out in wetsuits and watch a short video of the do's and don'ts of Shark Bay.

The principal message seems to be don't tease or touch the sharks - hold on a minute, I've seen Jaws parts one through three, do they really think I'm going to prod a carnivorous pool-mate to see what the reaction will be?

Okay, perhaps it's time to come clean.

Sea World isn't actually going to treat the vicarious onlookers gleefully lined up alongside the pool to the spectacle of truly dangerous sharks dining out on hapless swimmers.

The Shark Bay attraction is made up of three distinct areas, the rock pool zone, reef lagoon and shark lagoon.

The reef lagoon, where we take our dip, is populated by the more benign shark species including the nervous shark - no more than me I can assure you - black tip and white tip reef sharks, leopard sharks and grey carpet sharks among others.

Anyone who has snorkelled or dived on reefs will know these are not often associated with attacks on humans.

They share the enclosure with a stunning variety of stingrays and fish typically found on tropical reefs, oh, and, Popeye a giant - and I mean truly huge - Queensland groper.

The most exciting aspect, apart from swimming among all this marine life, is the view through to the shark lagoon where the unpredictable predator sharks circulate with menacing regularity.

Separated by two 10m by 3m acrylic panels, we are literally centimetres away from the feared tiger sharks, bull sharks and dusky whalers which inhabit the neighbouring enclosure.

The principal difference between the two enclosures, other than their inhabitants, is that shark lagoon is much bigger and allows the sharks space to perform a 60m-long swim glide pattern, which is essential for larger sharks who use the glide movement to rest.

A charmingly named dusky whaler called Dorothy is the park's largest shark. Dorothy comes in at a whopping 3.5m and magnified through the water, my goggles and the acrylic panels looks very imposing indeed.

From this distance you can clearly pick up the stripes on the tigers and get a feel for the tremendous strength of the powerfully built bull sharks who are identifiable through their darker colouring and drooping fins.

Shark Bay holds 5.4 million litres of water which is turned over through four filtration systems every 90 minutes, making it an amazing feat of engineering as well as great entertainment.

And the display isn't all about awe, it also has an educational element. Around the pool and in the excellent underwater viewing area are displays pointing out the ecological importance of sharks and putting our knowledge of them into some kind of perspective.

Ponder these facts for a moment: less then 10 of the 360 shark varieties are know to be dangerous; for every Australian killed by sharks 23 million kilograms of shark and ray is killed by man and that on average one Australian is taken by sharks a year while nearly 3000 die on the roads.

It's also noted that because of the hysteria surrounding great whites and grey nurse sharks their numbers are falling rapidly.

It's estimated that there are only 500 grey nurse sharks left on the east coast of Australia and that 440 great whites are caught by commercial and recreational fishers a year.

But back to the fun stuff.

While our snorkel cost A$55 ($61)and a similar experience in scuba gear will set you back A$90 ($100), the more adventurous may like to tackle a shark encounter which involves feeding the predator sharks from an acrylic cage suspended in their lagoon costs A$250 ($278).

Now for that, a waiver might really be necessary.

* Robin Martin travelled to the Gold Coast courtesy of Freedom Air and was hosted by Gold Coast Tourism.

Getting there

Freedom Air flies direct to the Gold Coast from Auckland, Hamilton, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin. Internet only fares start from $189 each way (plus taxes, levies and surcharges). See www.freedomair.com or call 0800 600 500 for more information.

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