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It’s better down where it’s wetter

Lovers of marine life don’t have to travel to the Florida Keys to experience an aquatic adventure anymore. In February, the Florida Aquarium introduced a new program called “Swim with the Fishes” that allows uncertified divers to swim in a 500,000-gallon coral reef tank. The program is open to anyone older than 6 and offers an intimate encounter with marine life.

“Swim with the Fishes” uses scuba-like equipment and requires no previous experience. Swimmers must remain near the top of the tank for the program, where they can swim with queen angelfish, green moray eels and other marine life in a coral reef environment.

Andrea Davis, the public relations coordinator for the Florida Aquarium, said reactions to the “Swim with the Fishes” program have been excellent.

“We’re already booked through May,” Davis said.

Davis also said the program, which was initiated as an educational tool, is helping raise awareness about marine life. The program is aimed at teaching people about aquatic life and how to preserve the marine environment. She said the aquarium educates visitors more than it could before.

The opening of this new attraction came after the success of the aquarium’s “Dive with the Sharks” program that began last December. “Dive with the Sharks” allows only certified divers who are at least 15 years old to swim in a 125,000-gallon tank with sharks from around the world. However, divers must remain in a designated area and must not touch the sharks.

The goal of “Dive with the Sharks” is to dispel many of the shark myths and to take the fear of sharks and turn it into fascination and respect.

Davis said these programs are not huge revenue generators for the aquarium. However, visitors might be more likely to donate to the aquarium or to adopt a marine animal after having participated in one. The aquarium is not-for-profit, so donated money goes toward regular operating costs, the improvement of the aquarium and the addition of new programs.

The Florida Aquarium is one of several aquariums in the country to introduce programs providing a hands-on experience of marine life. The “Dolphin Discovery Tour” at the National Aquarium in Baltimore, allows aquarium-goers to meet three dolphins and tour the dolphin tank filtration system. The Mystic Aquarium in Mystic, Conn., offers the “Beluga Contact Program,” where visitors can wade in the aquarium tank and touch one-ton Beluga whales.

Pamela Hallock Muller, a marine science professor at USF St. Petersburg campus, said though she has mixed feelings about some kinds of enclosed marine experiences, it is still important for people to be educated about marine life. She said that because half of the American population lives reasonably close to a coastline, it is important to preserve the marine environment.

“The marine environment is essential to the health and well-being of the coastal community,” she said.

She added several reasons why it is important to understand and preserve marine life. For example, she said many people depend on marine life for protein food, and offshore reefs protect coastal communities from storm damage. Hallock Muller also said sea levels are rising due to an increase of atmospheric carbon dioxide which can be harmful to island communities and to areas that are dependent on their shorelines for tourism.

“Experiencing nature firsthand is absolutely critical to a person’s view of nature,” she said. “People have to experience something to appreciate it.”

Hallock Muller has not participated in either of the programs the Florida Aquarium has introduced. She has, however, dived in the enclosed Living Sea exhibit at Disney World.

“I haven’t decided if the human value is worth bringing people in to see the exhibit,” she said.

She said other places people may want to go to dive and experience marine life in its natural habitat are Crystal River and other springs in the area, as well as offshore diving at Venice Beach.

The aquarium’s “Swim with the Fishes” program costs $50 and requires a reservation. The fee covers aquarium admission, and the rental of equipment, and if the swimmer is a child, it allows one adult to participate in the program with the child.

The “Dive with the Sharks” program costs $150 and is open only to certified divers. With the fee, divers receive admission into the aquarium, a T-shirt, a photograph of the participant in the shark tank and $2 off admission for up to six guests to watch the diver.

Florida Aquarium membership costs $25 for individuals and allows for a 10-percent discount on either of these programs. The Florida Aquarium is located in the Channelside complex in downtown Tampa.

Contact Whitney Meersat