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Shark Bait
Well, we can cross that off our bucket list
By Elyse Notarianni

I loved Shark Week growing up. It always came the week after I came home from summer camp, so I’d heal from my bug bites and sunburns by sitting cross-legged on the couch watching the Discovery Channel.

As I watched celebrities cage dive with great whites, I swore I’d be the type of person who’d do that one day. Not that I’m particularly brave – I’ve always been more of a read-a-book-on-the-boat kind of gal. But I liked the idea of adventure, and I figured that by the time I was, say, 25, I’d be able to face a shark head-on without a second thought.

And now at 25, I can honestly say that was wishful thinking. Comically wishful. Delusional, really.

This summer, SJ Mag Digital Editor Klein Aleardi and I started a video series called, “It’s a South Jersey Summer,” where we basically bop around South Jersey doing a bunch of fun stuff. We’re good friends outside of work too, so really it was just an excuse to spend our workdays goofing around, eating food down the Shore and videoing it all along the way. Honestly, it’s a blast.

So, I was all about her idea to go snorkeling with the sharks at Camden’s Adventure Aquarium. At first. About halfway through finalizing the details, I sent a message to Klein that read, “Ok, I’m setting this up and realizing I 1,000,000,000% don’t want to do this. Like, I will, but that’s terrifying.”

And she laughed at me. For days.

Adventure Aquarium’s team was great about letting us know what to expect. We’d be given a wetsuit and snorkeling gear. We’d be in waist-deep water on the ledge of the aquarium’s 760,000-gallon ocean exhibit with a barrier safely between us and the sharks. I knew with 100% certainty that I was completely safe. Nothing even remotely traumatic would happen to me unless I did something stupid, like reach out to touch a shark, which I definitely didn’t plan to do.

But once I had my wetsuit on, actually being there was a different story. There was a ledge, and there was a barrier. But was it a short barrier? Yes. And were sharks actively swimming through the walkway I was supposed to be kneeling on in the water? Also yes.

And they still wanted me to go in there?

Klein was ready to go, so after waiting for a particularly big shark to clear the walkway, we waded into the water with a member of the ocean realm team carrying a white PVC pipe to gently usher away any sharks coming too close. But his definition of “too close” and my definition might be a little different.

Within seconds, a 6-foot sandbar shark came gliding toward us, passing within inches of Klein and me.

Without meaning to, I let out a yelp underwater that (I hope) Klein didn’t catch on camera, filling my mask with water. Klein barely looked up – she didn’t seem phased at all.

The next time a shark came, I stayed put. Back and forth, reef and blacktip sharks swam in front of us, sometimes swimming toward the bottom of the tank, sometimes making a beeline straight for the two of us.

The nerves never went away, but I have to admit it was also amazing. Here I was with real, live sharks and colorful schools of fish swimming around right in the water with me. When else would I ever get that opportunity? (Without being in a stranded-at-sea situation, at least.)

The next part was more my speed. We did the “stingray shuffle” as we walked into a shallow pool attached to the ocean realm. We shuffled our feet through the sand so we didn’t accidentally step on a ray chilling on the bottom.

I loved them. They were like little dogs, bumping into us in their haste to say hi. Klein was not so charmed. The look on her face at the thought of petting them and hand-feeding them fish clearly showed that she’d rather take her chances with the sharks. She did, however, meet a little ray named Tina, whose lack of a tail and love of cuddles made Klein smile.

Then we stopped in the shark tank for one more view. It was supposed to be 15 minutes, and maybe it was, or maybe it was 2, I don’t know – all I remember is that 3 sharks came charging at us all at the same time, and I stood up and said, “You know, this has been great, but I’d really love it if we were done now.”

Afterward, the Adventure Aquarium team asked me how I felt about sharks now. I think they were hoping I’d say they aren’t so bad or so scary, which I wasn’t exactly on the same page about (although Klein sure was). But I did leave with a healthy respect and more than a bit more awe for these creatures than I had before. But will I be getting back in with the sharks? Nope. Once in a lifetime is good enough for me.

 

Watch Elyse and Klein swim with the sharks here.

August 2021
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