Swim with the Fishes at the Florida Aquarium

Being underwater is something to which Floridians are accustomed. Swimming, waterskiing, surfing or floating in a raft, you’re apt to get wet and have a sneak peak into the world without an atmosphere, under the sea.

The Florida Aquarium in Channelside offers a variety of hands-on events to explain undersea phenomena.

Shannon Cornwell, a USF student and Florida Aquarium diver, said she thinks that getting to know ocean life is especially relevant for citizens of a state with a lot of coastline.

“College students should experience the Aquarium because it gives people a rush and an up-close and personal view of the different animals especially in Florida. You get to see what is in the ocean,” Cornwell said.

Cornwell has been diving since the age of 11. She started volunteering at the Florida Aquarium and soon after she finished her volunteer training she began conducting dive shows.

“It was fun but also scary,” Cornwell said. “My coolest experience is when I get in the shark tank and they rub up against me. Their skin is not like a normal fish. When they rub up against me, they don’t have scales like most fish do; they have something that is called denticles. If you move against it one way it is smooth but the opposite way it is sharp, but not sharp enough to cut you.”

Those conducting shark dive shows wear masks that have speakerphones so that the audience can hear the divers while they are in the tank.

“We can talk to the audience, and they can hear you, and you can talk back and forth and interact with the interpreter on the other side of the window,” Cornwell said.

Within the main shark tank are nine sharks, all from different parts of the world. There are zebra sharks, tiger sharks, black tip reef sharks and nurse sharks all located within the tank.

“We get our sharks from different aquariums. The shark bay houses four different species of sharks so you have to travel all around the world to see each one. They are not found just native of Florida, so it is nice for divers so they can see the variety and the diversity of shark species,” Cornwell said.

Because of their changing nature, the sharks don’t always mimic their namesakes.

“A lot of people think that our zebra shark should be called a leopard shark because of the dots. But, when they first start off their life they have stripes so they can blend in more with sea-grass beds. But then as it gets bigger the stripes fade and they turn to polka dots,” Cornwell said.

The tiger shark is the most common aquarium shark because people can see its teeth. Their natural expression is a sort of smile.

At the Aquarium the sharks are fed three times a week.

“Scientists think that (in the wild) they eat about a couple times a month. Aquarium workers put a squid at the end of a pole to serve it to the sharks, a practice called target feeding.”

Within the main shark tank, there is a 250-pound endangered sea turtle.

“He likes his shell to be scratched. There is no way to know how old he is — it is unproven as to how long turtles live for,” Cornwell said.

The Aquarium not only seeks to entertain and educate but is also a rehabilitation facility.

“We do a lot of rehab through calls. We house the animals and rehabilitate them here with our vets. It’s a great place for animals to stay, and it includes free food, medical and rent,” Cornwell said with a smile.

This season the Aquarium workers are caring for turtles that were stranded in the cold water during the winter.

“We rehabilitate them and then let them loose,” Cornwell said.

The Aquarium has many different events including one of their newest ones, “Swim with the Fishes.” This program allows people to experience a simulated 60-foot dive modeled after an actual dive site in the Dry Tortugas in Key West, Fla. For half an hour, an instructor takes divers into the coral reef tank where they can see 1,700 individual fish.

“The 1,700 fish represent about 60-65 different species of fish. They range in size from really small damsel fish to a green moray eel,” Cornwell said.

The tank also contains one black nose shark. While swimming, it is easy to see the fish and also to get frightened when the shark peers around the corner. The eel also seems intimidating in size and strength when you’re face to face with it, and the stingrays graceful and quick.

Zoey Worley, 9, a visitor to the “Swim with the Fishes” exhibit, said she was hesitant to go in because of the shark, but added that it was exciting and she would do it again.

No previous dive experience is necessary.

All of the fish inside the tank are native to Florida, giving visitors a microcosm of Florida sea life. Cornwell said this exhibit helps children and adults to either learn more or face their fears of sea creatures.

Due to all of the hard work that is needed to keep the aquarium maintained, it is always looking for volunteers.

“Our big thing here is volunteers. We need a lot of volunteers because we have an open exhibit, unlike most aquariums. Seeing that the tank is open, it gets a lot of algae buildup. We are in need of volunteers to help clean the tanks. To be a diver volunteer you have to have certification,” Cornwell said.

General admission is $18 for adults. “Swim with the Fishes” costs $75 a person. For more information on any of the programs and costs go to: www.flaquarium.org.