TAMPA — Sharks are funny creatures. For the most part, they leave people alone. But every once in a while, one gets a little too curious and takes a nip out of a human. Then the newspaper headlines scream "shark attack," adding to the animal's fearsome reputation.
As a surfer, diver and open-water swimmer, I've spent plenty of time thinking about these toothy critters, professing to family and friends that my "good shark karma" will protect me from danger.
"I don't eat sharks," I often say. "Sharks don't eat me."
But I must confess that I did feel a little uneasy as I knelt in the shark cage at the Florida Aquarium on Sunday and watched as a pair of sand tigers slowly circled the oversized fish tank.
"Don't make any sudden moves," Barbara Henneke had warned me a few minutes earlier. "You don't want to get them excited."
Like every participant in the aquarium's Dive with the Sharks program, I went through a mandatory education session to learn the do's and don'ts of diving with the ocean's apex predators.
In addition to a pair of menacing-looking sand tigers, the 65- by 35-foot tank also held a sea turtle, moray eels and a large barracuda that looked like it could rip off my face in one bite.
But experience has taught me that as long as one remains calm, animals will usually do the same.
The sand tiger looks a lot meaner than it really is, thanks to its gaping mouth and protruding teeth. In fact, it is seldom labeled a "man-eater" even though it has been implicated in isolated attacks on divers.
According to the Florida Museum of Natural History's Department of Ichthyology, most human versus sand tiger confrontations involve scuba divers who had been spearfishing.
Still, no matter what your brain says, your body does what it wants the second a 7-foot shark swims a few feet from your head.
It would be just my luck, I thought to myself, that this shark will nip off an ear, sending a cloud of blood into the water, traumatizing my children watching on the other side of the glass.
But I knew that in the more than 10 years that the aquarium has been conducting shark dives, no one has been injured. And it was comforting to know Henneke had a stick, about the size of a walking cane, that she could use for defense if things got dicey.
The sharks, however, are well fed and really have no interest in their human companions. In fact, some days the sharks keep their distance and can't be bothered with divers.
The typical dive lasts about 30 minutes, and I must confess, I spent the first five trying to control my breathing, afraid I would suck my tank dry and be forced to end my dive prematurely.
Eventually, I felt more comfortable and the sharks might have sensed this, as they circled closer and closer until I could sense them just inches from my face. I wanted to reach out and touch one, but that's a big no-no and would have terminated the dive.
Then, just when I was getting comfortable with my new friends, Henneke signaled it was time to go. Too short a visit, I thought. But hopefully someday I'll meet their cousins in the wild.