It begins with sirens.
“Emergency, evacuate as directed,” a voice blares over the PA system between deafening whoops.
“It’s not exactly the ‘extreme’ angle we were going for,” laughs Brett Fairhurst, shark dive coordinator at Sea Life Sydney Aquarium.
I laugh nervously back. Then he presses ‘play’ on a training video, that tells me in no uncertain terms to: “Prepare yourself for the most extreme experience of your life”. Yeah, no kidding.
I’m here to take part in Sydney’s only cageless shark diving experience, Shark Dive Xtreme, who’ve just celebrated their one-year anniversary at Sea Life Sydney – but an impromptu fire drill has briefly interrupted the morning’s proceedings. I try not to let the sirens fuel my sense of foreboding.
I know from studying the website that the sharks I’m about to meet are harmless, but I can’t help but note their uncanny resemblance to Australia’s more infamous ocean predator, the great white – at least to my untrained eye. I tell this to Brett right off the bat, in a very obvious attempt to seek reassurance.
“Yeah, yeah, you’re right. They’re the cousins of the great white. But vastly different. Teeth structure’s different. Swimming structure’s different,” he says.
“They tend to colonise rocks and caves and smaller areas, which is why we can keep them in aquariums. Great white sharks would get stressed out.”
The aquarium houses five grey nurses – two females and three males – in an enormous two million litre tank. The biggest one is about 3.3 metres, which is pretty much as big as they get.
“We estimate her to be in her late thirties, and that’s about as old as they get, too. You’ll know her when you see her,” Brett says.
There are an estimated 2500 grey nurse sharks on the planet, making them a critically endangered species. The aquarium estimates around 1500 of those reside on our east coast.
But before we can get acquainted, there’s some housekeeping.
The number-one rule, Brett says, is do not touch the animals.
“They may come in very close and brush past you. They’re not going to bite you, they’re not going to attack you or anything. Just don’t try to pat them – you just got to let them be.”
There are just a few places in Australia that offer similar shark diving experiences, but Sea Life Sydney Aquarium sets itself apart with its impressive array of marine life.
As well as grey nurses, there’s about a half-dozen wobbegongs, another half-dozen Port Jackson sharks, white tip reef sharks and two southern smooth stingrays.
“One of them’s a rescue, the other is one of the largest smooth stingrays that is known of. Her name’s Big Mouth.”
At 250-300kg, she’s about the size of a queen bed, and the rescue is not much smaller. But are they dangerous?
“Not unless you try to ride one like a magic carpet,” Brett laughs, admitting they’re so placid that he’ll “blow raspberries” on them.
There’s a lot of stigma about rays after the whole Steve Irwin thing, he admits, referring to the TV star’s untimely death.
“What people don’t seem to realise is, he was doing a rescue relocation, and he’s on top of this stingray, trying to move it, in the wild… It was just a freak accident.”
Feeling more confident, we change into our wetsuits and hop into the training tank. It’s suspended above the main tank, with only glass separating us from the animals.
The tank used to be heated, Brett explains, but they’ve since turned it off to assist the animals’ natural cycles. Today, it’s around 21 degrees Celsius, and even with a wet suit on, the chill briefly takes my breath away.
Brett will be capturing the dive on camera, while fellow instructor Griff keeps watch from behind. As well as the two instructors, there are even more staff keeping tabs on us from inside the subterranean glass tunnels – a precaution Brett says isn’t really necessary, but they like to cover all bases.
Shark Dive Xtreme can host groups of up to five people, but today it’s just me, and as the two of them suit me up with weights, tanks, and fuss over buckles and straps, I wonder if this is how movies stars feel like as they’re primped for a big awards show.
You don’t need any prior scuba diving experience to partake – they provide all the equipment and necessary training on the day and you’ll only be diving to a maximum depth of around four metres, so it’s exceptionally beginner friendly.
Finally, we’re ready – Brett assists me into the main tank and walks me over to a built-in rock face near the south tunnel. He gestures to hold it, and I latch on.
It’s eerily quiet, as I whip my head around trying to take in everything. Massive grey nurses glide right over my head, rays flap around the centre of the tank with the undulating grace of a ballerina, and small striped fish flutter around me like little subterranean butterflies. I’d be grinning if I didn’t think it’d flood my regulator and mask with water.
For the second half of the dive I’m led to the southern tunnel – I’m satisfied that I’ve mastered the forward-leaning gait required to move around the tank. Brett helps us scale over the top of the transparent arc-shaped tunnel, and props me up on the ledge for the best views. I’m now precisely at head-level with the aforementioned grey nurses.
It’s there, from my newly elevated perch, I watch in mild horror as one of the sharks – easily three-metres long – swims right towards me. And well, I wish I could say I’d kept my cool.
Nope. I panic. I try to drop to the tank floor. But even with my weight belt I’m way too buoyant – I’m flailing, my head is now mere centimetres from the creature’s terrifying mouth.
Griff grabs my legs and yanks me to the floor, while I try to retract limbs.
Of course, I was never really in danger, and I immediately feel silly. I take small consolation in the fact that you can’t really laugh underwater, or I’m certain both boys would be howling right about now. Using his best underwater miming gestures, Griff communicates that the sharks will simply go around me. Oh.
The rest of the dive is a breeze, and I can hardly believe just how close I get to these majestic animals. Occasionally, I feel a fin brush my face, or watch in awe as a grey nurse flexes its jaw right next to me, revealing rows of jagged teeth. It’s quite simply one of the most thrilling diving experiences you’ll ever have.
Shark Dive Xtreme run between three and four shark dive sessions per day. Prices start from $239 per adult (14 years over), with photo packages additional. Ticket price includes all-day entry to the aquarium. For bookings visit sydneyaquarium.com.au/tickets/shark-dive-xtreme.