A little while ago I received an invitation to attend the opening of a new exhibit at SEA LIFE Blackpool, the seafront aquarium that’s part of the Merlin Group and has a number of sites across the UK. They were launching something called “Jurassic Seas”, an area within the centre dedicated to really really old creatures. Despite the fact Blackpool being something of a road trip away from Lincoln, rather than instantly dismiss the invitation because it was probably aimed at bloggers with kids anyway, I replied. “I’m free that day. Any chance I can get in the tank?” Sometimes you just have to put your hand up and ask the question. What’s the worst that could happen?
As a result last weekend I packed my new swimsuit (I’m not sure the guys at Aqua Sphere expected this to be my first test – must find an actual pool for a proper dip and to write my review very soon) and drove over to “the Las Vegas of the north” (!) for a walk along the promenade, a pizza, night in a Premier Inn, and some snorkelling with sharks.
The snorkelling with sharks experience at SEA LIFE Blackpool offers an opportunity to see the creatures in the Ocean display tank a bit closer than other visitors, by jumping into the tank and floating around in the same water they are. Yes, it’s a bath in a fish tank. And I was so excited about it! I know I’m a bit strange, I blame my mother. Sorry mum.
If you’ve ever been to a place like this you’ll know the sort of tank I’m talking about – it’s the one where you walk through the perspex tube and see all the big fishes swimming around above your head. At SEA LIFE Blackpool some of the most famous residents include Boris the Bowmouth Guitar Shark, Napoleon the Humphead Wrasse, six Black Tip Reef Sharks and two Guitar Shovelnose Sharks. There were also Groupers and a Sting Ray (barb not removed), plus a whole load of other miscellaneous fish – I’d love to tell you what they all were, but my fish knowledge is rather lacking. I know the beautiful creatures here are kept in captivity, but there will be more about their conservation efforts in another post, and I think places like this do have an important role to play in our education.
The Ocean Tank at SEA LIFE Blackpool
My Snorkelling with Sharks Experience
They’re not really able to let you swim in the tank without restriction, so you are confined to a netted cage area. This is not only sensible for my own safety, but also and more importantly for the safety of the fish in the tank. I didn’t want to hurt one of them any more than I wanted one of the big fish to hurt me. After a short briefing, signing my life away as you must on all experiences like this, and getting into my shortie wetsuit (that did up at the front – SO much easier for stuff like this!), I was introduced to the tank from above. It all looks very different from up there.
The Ocean Tank from above.
Apparently the water is kept at a steady 24 degrees Celsius, which isn’t exactly warm but didn’t bother me as I’ve swum in much colder. There was a metal ladder I used to lower myself into the tank, I took a moment to find my confidence in the water and get used to the snorkel and mask (it’s been a while), and then spent the next half an hour happily floating and watching the fish swim around me, taking it all in. The most surprising thing for me was just how peaceful it was in there. I could hear the pumps moving the water around in the tank and my own breathing, but that was it. Fish are naturally silent as they swim, they are so beautiful in their natural motion.
Did you know that some shark species swim constantly and others spend most of their time resting on the sea bed? Sharks have a definite movement about them, they were so close to me, coming right up to and around the net as I floated around inside. The Black Tips were my favourite I think, so sleek and streamlined – in my mind they were like a little Great White. Probably not in reality but you know what I mean. If you drew a shark you’d probably draw a Black Tip. There was one rule – no part of my body should go through the netting; apparently the fish might think I’m dinner. No thanks. The netting was not rigid and it was really tempting to grab hold with my hands to help me move around more gracefully, but I managed to resist temptation and used the blue ropes and cage frame instead. No incidents!
I took these snaps of the cage from underneath (I spotted some visitors the “tube” while I was in the cage and waved – I think I might be in their photographs – and went to find that spot when I finished so I could take the picture). It looks a bit small from there but there really was plenty of space for me to move around freely – I could swim from one end to the other, move around using the ropes and frame, and get a view from any angle I chose. The fish, sharks included, noticed I was there and came over to say hi, and were right up against the netting and underneath the perspex bottom. Yes, a cage, but nothing too restrictive. I’m sure it helped that I was the only person in there. I understand that you can have up to four people in there at any one time – I would think that’s still fine, although you’d just have to be careful where you put your arms and legs, something I didn’t need to be too bothered about.
I was able to take my little waterproof point and shoot camera into the tank with me (thanks guys) but the experience was first and foremost about me experiencing being in the water so close to those amazing creatures. It was a very dark green in there – only a couple of snaps came out well enough to share, but you’ll be pleased to know that one of those snaps was a selfie that proves I was actually in there. Look away now if you’re of a nervous disposition…!
How’s that for a selfie?! While my old Olympus Tough TG-610 doesn’t live up to the quality of my iPhone 6, it is so handy for things like this.
More than once I spent a good minute or two following one individual shark with my eyes as it swam around the tank into the distance before returning towards the cage again for another loop. I had the perfect private view. Every now and again a large colourful fish (with no name) would appear in front of my face as if it was asking what I was looking at. He was the most colourful fish in the whole tank and there was a light in just the right spot that made his scales shine – I think he knew it. He was a funny little (actually quite big) thing and was incredibly interested in me – it felt like he was going to come through the netting on more than one occasion. Thankfully the only other still that came out shows him off.
The video mode worked a bit better than the stills, though. So if you’ve not already seen the video footage, there’s a good chunk of clips in episode 13 of my weekly vlog >
Swimming with sharks has been on my bucket list for a long time and I always imagined it would be a slightly scary and rather frantic experience on holiday somewhere. But this was a very relaxed and safe way to get my tick and I would recommend it to anyone who is interested in viewing and learning about sharks in a more personal way than just standing the other side of the perspex wall. It was just amazing, well worth the journey across the country – I love how you can have a bucket list full of awesome experiences and it’s possible to tick some of them off so easily on a Saturday morning – even the more bizarre things. Life is all about the journey. Living is snorkelling with sharks in a huge fish tank!
Thank you to SEA LIFE Blackpool for inviting me to the launch of the Jurassic Seas exhibit and for arranging for me to get in the tank. Definitely one for the memory banks. If you want to try snorkelling with sharks you can book it on the SEA LIFE Blackpool website.