Friday, June 29, 2012
If You Go
A1 Scuba offers dive and snorkel trips to the Denver Aquarium on Saturdays and Sundays year-round.
Cost: $85 to snorkel (ages 6 and older); $185 to dive (with certification card); $195 Discover Scuba program (no card needed, dive with guide, ages 10 and older). All prices include $15.99 aquarium entrance fee, which you can tour afterward.
The dive mask marks gave her away.
While the other girls on my daughter’s U12 hockey team followed their coach’s advice to rest up between games during their tournament in Denver, Brooke, 12, likely is the only person who has ever scuba dived with sharks between puck drops.
While the Mile High City might not seem like a scuba hot spot, no one bothered telling that to A1 Scuba. Pioneering a new trend in urban adventure, the company’s dive and snorkeling programs at the Denver Aquarium open up the world of Ariel to anyone willing to get wet with marine life. In front of regular visitors watching through a window, the program lets you mingle with manta rays, glide beneath groupers and squeal at eels, all in your own giant, private fish tank a rod’s cast away from Sports Authority Field at Mile High.
Like the pane separating us from the exhibit’s dry attendees, we have just enough of a window between Brooke’s games to pull it off. As soon as she clambers out of her hockey gear, we beeline to the aquarium for our visit to Atlantis.
Meeting us at the door is Shane Taylor, whose father founded A1 Scuba in Denver in 1959. Two pierced ears and pirate-like arm tattoos hint of a life spent near — and in — the ocean. After handing us various forms to sign, he leads us through a hallway, warning us to watch out for animals being transported.
“The aquarium wasn’t originally designed to accommodate recreational diving,” he says, escorting us behind a 750,000-gallon saltwater tank, where workers add 335 pounds of salt to every 1,000 gallons of water. “But luckily, its infrastructure lends itself to a diving program pretty well.”
Indeed it does. Ever since opening the program to the public in 2006, A1 has taken as many as 2,500 people diving and snorkeling annually at the aquarium. In the process, it’s pioneered the program nationwide, with five other aquariums throughout the country now offering similar programs, including those in Atlanta; Tampa and Orlando, Fla.; and Long Beach and Monterey, Calif.
“It’s definitely getting the attention of other facilities,” Taylor says as we walk down the hall. “But like ours, most of them weren’t designed with this sort of program in mind. For many of them, it’s hard to offer this kind of program without making serious renovations.”
That’s not the case here; the Denver facility’s infrastructure suits A1’s needs perfectly. The tank’s entry and exit areas are big and have stairway access, and the facility just so happens to have an elevator, deck areas and locker facilities with showers. “It’s pure luck that it works perfectly for our diving operations,” Taylor says.
The facility also allows A1 to conduct multiple programs at the same time, including dives in the 260,000-gallon tank and larger 400,000-gallon tank, which houses most of the sharks as well as three 12-foot-long sawfish; puffer fish; barracuda; jacks and red drums; a tarpon that has quadrupled in size in the past year; and a rare blue, bumpy-foreheaded Napoleon fish. A1 also uses the tanks for certification and underwater photography courses.
Ahead of us, divers emerge clad in wetsuits from a shower room. Taylor ushers us in, where we change into our swimsuits, and then leads us into a freight elevator used for moving large marine animals in and out of the tanks, including sharks. Capable of transporting a great white, it can fit 22 people at a time.
“You mean sharks have been in here?” asks my daughter Casey, 8, as we ascend to the tank floor. “Cool!”
Up top at the staging area, we meet dive safety officer Brian Saxon, who explains the aquarium’s “no-touch” policy (something I wish my daughters would heed in the car). “The fish are used to having people around, but we still have to take good care of them,” he says.
He also advises us not to worry if the grouper swims right above us and opens its massive mouth above our masks. It’s just positioning its gill slits above our bubbles for an oxygenating massage. He adds that we can keep any shark teeth we find in return for a donation that benefits a satellite-tag program for sharks in the Pacific Ocean. So far, aquarium dives have raised $10,000 for the program.
After a safety talk, he hands us our wetsuits, booties, masks and snorkels and escorts us to the tank’s edge. While Brooke and I get equipped with tanks, buoyancy-control devices and regulators, Casey heads to the snorkeling group.
While Casey stays on the surface with the rest of the snorkelers, Brooke and I pass quick mask and regulator-retrieval tests and then plunge in, descending to the bottom of the 15-foot-deep pool. At Denver’s altitude, this equates to 23 feet deep at sea level.
As soon as we dip our heads beneath the surface, it doesn’t feel like Denver anymore. The 260,000-gallon tank includes two green sea turtles, one of which is 65 years old; a pair of nocturnal, skittish, 7-foot-long, 80-pound eels; countless sting-rays; a white-spotted, gray-bodied guitar fish, with an acoustic-shaped body; three nurse sharks (with one in quarantine because it’s pregnant); clown and other tropical fish; and two groupers, including a 450-pound Queensland that’s still growing to its expected 1,200 pounds.
As Saxon warned, it soon hovers over Brooke, exposing its gaping jaw that could swallow Brooke whole. Her eyes are as wide as the bubbles caressing its gills.
Taking in sights divers normally only see thousands of miles away, Brooke and I follow Saxon through various passages, practicing our “Are you okay?” sign language and pointing at different fish. Shortly later, he turns us loose on our own. A large eel bares his teeth from a crack. Sting rays glide effortlessly overhead, like clouds wisping over the Front Range. Two nurse sharks rest docilely in the corner.
We could be in Belize or Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, save for the giant glass wall separating us from the gawkers below. Brooke ventures over to the window and waves enthusiastically, evoking onlookers to do the same. Casey waves at us from the surface above.
Eventually, Saxon signals it’s time to ascend, but we’re stymied by the start of the daily mermaid show. So we wait it out in a corner, happily watching women swim around with mermaid suits, before rising back to our obligations on the surface, which, for Brooke, means swapping her dive mask for a hockey one at her next game.