Friday, June 10, 2016

Bonus Post: Swimming with Sharks!

January 19: Well, I really have nothing more about Europe to post. I spent the night in the Paris airport, then another night in Phoenix after missing the last connection of the day to my mom's house in San Luis Obispo. I visited for a few days before flying back to Seattle where I went home for the first time in seven months. Seven months. What an adventure! So much had happened in those seven months, with thousands of miles of trails under my feet.

I made a spectacle of myself with this dive!

I was surprised to learn in... November, I think it was, that my mom was planning to retire at the end of the year. Earlier than she initially intended, but it meant it was time for me to fulfill a promise I had made her that I'd take her to Disney World after she retired. She'd never been there before. She's been to Disneyland often enough being a native Californian and all, but Disney World is... well, another world! But it's a big place, and requires a whole day just to travel there, and another day to travel back and a quality visit was going to take some time.

So I told her years ago that when she retired, I'd take her to Disney World. Although I had told her if she retired in July or something, we'd wait until winter to go. Who wants to go to Disney World when the weather is hot and miserable and the crowds can make you claustrophobic? Apparently almost everyone.... except us! =) We'd go in the off season and when the weather is better suited to our temperament. She's retired. I have a flexible job. We were going to be flexible.

We worked it around Amanda's schedule so she could join the fun as well, and the stars all aligned for the third week of January. Entirely by coincidence, the trip happened to span my mom's birthday so it then became the "retirement and birthday" trip. =)

And off we flew to sunny Florida. The weather was wonderful, and I set up a busy schedule that would take us to all four Disney Parks. (I'd only been to two of the four in my past visits, so half the trip was entirely new to me as well!)

And I'm not going to bore you with most of our trip. If you've been to Disney World, you know what's there! And, in fact, I've blogged about it before. And again. And again! (Scroll down to February 13th on that last link.)

But this time, I did something that was really cool and many of you experienced Disney World visitors might not even realize was an option.... swimming with sharks! So that's what I'm going to tell you about: The Epcot DiveQuest program.

All of the photos and videos were taken by Amanda or my mom. Obviously, I was unable to take any myself! =) This is everyone in the group splashing down before we submerged. I'm in there somewhere, but I'd be hard pressed to tell you which person is actually me.
You know that giant salt-water aquarium at Epcot? It's officially called the "The Seas with Nemo and Friends Pavilion", a 5.7 million gallon aquarium which includes turtles, fish, manatees, dolphins and--yes--sharks! And for a princely sum of just under $200, you can swim with them! Well, not the manatees or dolphins--they're separated off from the part where they allow you dive. If you're interested in doing this, you need have a scuba certification already--they aren't going to teach you here!--make a reservation early (limited space is available), and the cost of the dive includes the cost of getting into Epcot. (Although if you want to get into Epcot earlier in the day like I did, you need a regular ticket. Friends and family who watch you dive also need their own entrance tickets.)

My dive time was scheduled for January 19th at 4:30 or something in the afternoon, so I left Amanda and my mom who were inside the park and went just outside the front entrance, off to the side where the divers were supposed to meet.

In all, there were probably close to 20 of us who showed up, ready to dive. Check checked us all off on their clipboards and took our cards showing we're certified scuba divers. I really hoped they weren't going to test us on that matter, though, because I had scuba dived exactly once in the past ten years. To say my scuba skills were rusty was something of an understatement....

Then we were led through a side door to the backstage of Epcot. This is the entrance that few people ever get to go through. ;o)

At this point, we were under strict orders to take no photos--which is why you'll see no photos of this stuff. Backstage stuff is secret stuff. They'll kill you or something if you try to take a photo. Or maybe feed you to their sharks. I'm not sure. I didn't want to get kicked out of the park until after the dive was over, at the very least, so I refrained from taking photos.

But our backstage guide pointed out and explained what the various buildings and features we could see, and telling us more information about their aquarium, such as being the second-largest in the United States. (There's a newer one in Atlanta that is slightly larger, which they seemed to imply they did just to beat out Disney for the title of the largest aquarium.)

We could see cranes that they used to put their large animals in and out of the tank, and another smaller tank off to the side that's used to quarantine new animals before they're introduced into the larger tank.

There was also someone onsite, 24/7 every day of the year to make sure the aquarium always functioned properly. Heaven forbid if nobody was around and something important broke in the middle of the night and they arrived the next morning to find all of the animals in the aquarium dead! Needless to say, they also and backup generators to power the place.

And we all submerged, just before the obligatory lap around the pool.

Then we headed indoors, into the building housing the aquarium, although still in the backstage area where regular visitors never get to go. Our guide, Kate from New Jersey, showed us around a bit. We saw the kitchen where they prepare the food for the animals, and the backstage area where a couple of manatees were floating around. There's a small lift there that can pick up the manatees out of the water when it's time for a vet checkup or some surgical procedure. I thought it was interesting that they always feed the manatees at that location to make them habituated to going there on a daily basis. Most of the time they feed and leave, but when it's time for a checkup, the manatee is already positioned by the lift and gets lifted right out of the water. I imagine it must be startling to the giant creatures the first time that happens, but it's probably easier than trying to herd the manatee to the correct location every time they want a closer look at it.

Eventually we were led to a small room where the rules of the dive were explained. I don't know if the room has an official name, but I'm calling it the "briefing room." We weren't to touch any animals. Absolutely forbidden from touching them. It wasn't a big deal if one of them bumped into us, but we were not to touch them. Also, although the coral in the aquarium was entirely fake, we weren't supposed to touch that either. Coral--real corals, that is--are very sensitive and brittle and shouldn't be touched. Although the corals here were fake, not all of the visitors who would see us diving would know that and they wanted us to set a good example, so no touching the fake coral. While we were diving, we would be the attraction for all of the visitors. Not the fish or turtles or sharks. Us. We would be positive superstars underwater as all of the visitors watched. And we had to set a good example.

We were, however, allowed to touch the glass of the aquarium, where friends and family could watch us. And the floor of the aquarium was okay to touch or stand on.

Absolutely nothing metal was allowed in the tank. No watches, no hair thingys on the women if it used a metal clasp, etc. Metal and salt water did not mix. Also, along one section, there were metal bars separating the dolphins from the rest of the tank. We were to keep at least 10 feet away from those bars. The dolphins, they said, were curious creatures and might try checking us out, but they didn't want them getting too familiar with people. We could look--just don't get too close to the bars.

We were also told when we first jumped in, to first hang out at the surface. Once everyone was in the water, the dive leaders would take us on a short, circular swim around the aquarium mostly for the benefit of a cameraman that would be filming us. Once that was done, we were allowed to swim pretty much anywhere we wanted, or look for friends and family who might be watching through the aquarium glass. In all, we'd have something like 40 minutes of dive time.

At the end of our time, one of the dive leaders would knock a couple of rocks together to get our attention. (Underwater, obviously, you can't yell or call out to everyone. You get people's attention by doing things like banging hard objects together.) When we heard that, we were to all swim to the middle of the tank and slowly rise to the surface together. There going to be a few of their employees joining us in the water to make sure we stayed safe and followed the rules. It's not like they were going to let us loose with no supervision at all! =)

I know what some of you are thinking: OMG! Ryan's bald! No, that's me waving from behind the bald guy. =)
With all of the rules done, they eventually led to to some locker rooms where we were all given wet suits to change into. There were only a few women in our group--most of us were men. It was pretty crowded in the men's locker room, but I imagined the women had a lot more space to spread out! Our personal items we could put in a small locker, but we had to give them the key for the lockers before we dived. The key was made of medal and medal is not allowed at all in their tanks. But they'd keep the keys safe until after the dive was done.
When everyone was dressed in our new flashy wet suits, they took us through a door which led to the front of aquarium, and what a sight we must have made to all of the Epcot visitors when we walked out! Being such a large crowd of a people, and all dressed in wet suits, it's not an understatement to say that we stood out. =)

I looked for Amanda and my mom. I weren't sure if they were there yet. They definitely planned to watch my dive, but the actual dive wouldn't take place until over an hour after I had left them. I didn't know if they were there yet, but I didn't see them. I didn't really have a chance to look for them, though. The aquarium covers a couple of floors and leads through a few different rooms, and we were just marching through to another door into another backstage area. There was probably a way to have done that without going through the visitor area, but not as direct! And not as fun. =)

Once again in the backstage area, we went up some stairs that led to the top of the aquarium--a huge, round pool of water. It was surprisingly large. Inside where visitors are, a lot of the size is hidden because the water surrounds you on all sides and divided into what looks like separate rooms. Standing above it, you could see nearly the entire pool as being in a single, giant room. It looked a lot bigger from up here!

My mom seemed quite excited to see me swimming with sharks! You'd think being a mom, she'd be a little more worried about the sharks circling behind me. But then, maybe that's part of the Disney magic. =)

Tanks and regulators and all that were all lined up and ready to go. They listed us off by name in a specific order--the weights and sizes and such were different each of us, so they needed us to line us in the order the gear was sorted.

We put on all the stuff. It had been so long since I had handled any of it, I kind of watched what other people were doing. Put that on first, tighten that strap.... etc, etc. When everything seemed in order, I jumped into the water with a few other people who had already done so. I put the regulator in my mouth and took a couple of gulps of air. It's a weird feeling the first time you do that. It doesn't feel all that natural. But it seemed okay, so then I stuck my face underwater and took a couple of more gulps of air. Okay, that seemed to be going well. Through the googles, I saw my first view of the aquarium from inside the aquarium. There wasn't much to see. The animals weren't swimming near the surface, after all.

I treaded water while everyone else finished getting their gear on and jump into the water, and eventually everyone was ready. We add sank into the water and followed our leader for a promotional circuit around the aquarium.

Once I descended a short ways, WOW! So many fish and stuff! And the giant glass walls of the aquarium was filled with what seemed like hundreds of people. A passing thought rolled through my head. This is what it feels like to be in a zoo. Everyone is watching us--right now!

 I looked for my mom and Amanda, eventually spotting them. I wasn't sure if they would recognize me since we were all wearing largely identical wet suits, and although my head was visible, my hair was all wet and moving around in the water. It wouldn't look "normal." But then I saw them pointing at me and waving, so I knew they recognized me. =)

I'm looking for a hidden Mickey that I was told was in the aquarium somewhere. Now where could it be...? Hmm... =)

I waved from a distance and quickly completed the obligatory lap around the aquarium. There were fish and turtles and even sharks. Sharks! I figured they had to be friendly sharks, though. I couldn't imagine that Disney would let us swim with actual man-eating sharks. Imagine the headlines: "Group of 20 people attacked by sharks at Disney World as dozens of children and parents watch. Live at eleven!"

Yeah, there's no way that Disney would allow something like that to happen....

But I didn't linger to get better looks at them. As soon as the obligatory lap was over, I swam over to my mom and Amanda as we tried to communicate through the glass and water. Which mostly just consisted of waving at each other, and touching the glass. Options were limited!
Most of the divers seemed to have found their family members and were doing the same.

Eventually I moved on--I couldn't just stare at them the whole time I was underwater. I would like to see some of the aquatic creatures closer up!

The main, large windows had large crowds of people watching us, but there was another window without the crowds. It was a restaurant, where people were eating dinner. The patrons of the establishment couldn't help but watch us either, even if the windows were less crowded with people. Just to be funny, I pointed to one person's plate of food and gave him a thumbs up. This food was approved by me. I really hoped none of it was seafood, though! That would just be wrong, to be eating seafood in full view of the aquarium. What if the fish was a friend or relative of one of the fish inside?!

I took a look around for awhile, but there's really only so much to see, and I wandered back towards the window with all of the spectators.

The kids seemed absolutely entranced by our being in the tank, and even though I didn't know any of the kids, it seemed like they would all wave excitedly if I got near them. I waved back.

One kid, as I started swimming away, gave me a "come back" wave, so I did, giving him a "what?" shrug. He just looked at me, and I waved goodbye again.

Portals to the air-breathing world were everywhere! But I couldn't get through any of them for obvious reasons.

Another small boy I could see through the window had a "happy birthday" button on his shirt. I recognized the button immediately since my mom had an identical one she'd been wearing the last couple of days, so I tried pointing to his button and pointing to where it would have been on my chest--it was more clear where I was pointing when I pointed at the location on myself--then back at him again. The best I could manage for "Happy birthday!"

He didn't seem to get what I was trying to communicate, but he mom behind him did because I saw her nodding and telling him something. I imagined it was, "He's wishing you a happy birthday!" The boy said something--I couldn't hear what, obviously--but I saw his mom encouraging him to wave. I imagined she was telling him something like, "He can't hear you. You have to wave!"

I was having so much fun playing with the kids, I started doing more silly things. I would flip completely over, a 360 degree spin through the water. Why not?! =)

When Amanda was nearby and I saw a shark coming my way, I tried to communicate to her to get a picture of the shark swimming by me. A lot of pointing at the shark and trying to pantomime taking photos. It worked! Actually, I was kind of surprised at how well I could communicate with others on the other side of the glass.

All-in-all, it was a heck of a lot of fun!

Eventually, I heard a distinct CLINK-CLINK! in the water--our signal that the dive was over. I waved goodbye one last time and everyone moved towards a single large group at the middle of the tank where we slowly rose back to the surface and left the water.

Now that I had much better idea about the layout of the tank and realized we were immediately above the central room in the aquarium. Amanda and my mom might be directly below me, not even 20 feet away. But it was like night and day. Front stage and back stage.

We took off all our gear and headed back to the locker rooms. Again, they took us through the visitor area to get to the locker rooms, so once again we paraded through the front-of-house in our wetsuits, this time dripping wet. We passed another group of people in dry wetsuits, heading out to make their own dives. "Don't do it!" I joked at one of them, "There's sharks in the water! I barely made it out alive!"

Surprisingly, walking around dripping wet didn't actually get us as much attention as you might think. I hoped Amanda and my mom were still there nearby, to get a photo of me in the wet suit without the thick glass or water distortions from when I was actually swimming, but I didn't see them. They might have still been there, but not readily visible on our transit through the front-stage area.

Back at the locker rooms, we could change out of the wet suits and shower off all the salt water. We dried off, put our street clothes back and, and were directed once again to the briefing room.

We had to wait a bit for the video they took of us underwater to be completed, but soon it was done and they played it for us. The video was.... *shrug* I wasn't especially interested in it. I didn't actually see myself in it at all. Maybe a small blip in the background, but somehow I didn't really make it into the video. And most of it was kind of boring with divers waving at loved ones on the other side of the glass. The video cost money for anyone who wanted to buy it--the proceeds of which were donated to some sort of organization for wildlife protection. (As, I might add, was the cost of the dive trip. Apparently, Disney doesn't keep any of the money for itself.) But I just couldn't stomach the idea of buying a video I really didn't want, even if it was for a good cause and was one of the few people not to purchase it.

They did give us a free DiveQuest T-shirt, though, which you might occasionally see me wearing around town. =)

They also wrote down exactly what types of animal species we swam with:
  • sandtiger shark (2)
  • brown/sandbar shark (3)
  • blackhose shark (1)
  • southern stingray (5)
  • cownose stingray (9)
  • spotted eagle ray (4)
  • guitar fish (2)
  • loggerhead sea turtle (3)
  • green sea turtle (1)
  • Kenny black blotch ray (1)
  • devil ray (2)
Returning back to the land of air-breathing creatures.

After that was done, we were led back to the front stage area where we could leave and go off to whatever else it was we wanted to do at Epcot. I was about to pull out my phone to call my mom and Amanda and find out where they were located, but they were still there and found me before I even fumbled it back on.

I was surprised when we stepped out of the building and it was completely dark outside. When I entered the building a couple of hours earlier, it was bright daylight. Inside the aquarium, there are no windows or anything else to give you a clue about what's outside. But it wasn't super late or anything--maybe 6:30 or 7:00 or so? And when I stepped outside, I was slightly taken aback at it being completely dark outside. How long was I really in that building for?!

Amanda said I did great--it was as if I were auditioning or something with my flips and interacting with all the children. Apparently, I was much more entertaining to watch than the other divers--who I actually paid very little attention to unless they were directly below me and their bubbles were floating up towards me.

Anyhow.... if you're ever at Epcot, and you have a scuba certification, and you want to try something a little different.... That DiveQuest program is absolutely awesome. Two thumbs up and a heck of a lot of fun! =)

And... I have some sad news for you folks. This was it. I have nothing more to blog about. After over a solid year of non-stop posts every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, my blog has finally caught up with real life and I have no new material to post. This is it! Come Monday, there will be no new post. Next Wednesday, no new post. Nor Friday. Nor the Monday after that. This is it. The Last Post.

For now.... I already have summer plans in the works and hopefully within a few more months, I'll have more material to post! =)

But before I sign off, enjoy a couple of videos of my dive at Epcot. =)

Proof positive that I really swam with the sharks!

This is just me being silly and showing off for my audience. =)


Anonymous said...

Thank you for all the entertainment these last few months that I have been reading. I will have to go back and start from the beginning now because I have missed so much. Epcot sounded like so much fun! Looking forward to reading more blogs. ~BrockBrood~

Karolina said...

How cool! I went to your blog thinking "no more posts for a while" and here's a surprise! Fun diving with starts :-).

Well, I am looking forward to helping you create another hiking adventure :-)

Karolina said...

I meant diving with sharks, not starts, of course. My smartphone is messing up with MW.

Karolina said...

Ryan! When cnan we expect new blogposts? You're already hiking the next trail, in the East of the US, right? Buen Camino! :-)

Ryan said...

I probably won't start this blog until I've already finished this hike. Give me a few weeks! =)