You don't necessarily have to go to the ocean to get face to face with Atlantic blue tangs, giant angelfish and butterfly fish. At SeaWorld's Discovery Cove theme park in Orlando, guests can take a 20-minute underwater tour of its Grand Reef area.
Here, humans and underwater creatures interact in a way you could otherwise experience only while diving off Florida's coasts.
But the humans are way inland, at this marine-animal-themed park in Orlando. And no scuba certification is needed here.
At its Grand Reef area, where snorkelers and swimmers get a peek at tropical marine life, guests are invited to broaden their experience with a 20-minute underwater walking tour called SeaVenture.
"I've never done anything like that before," said Nicole Huyett, 45, who was visiting Orlando from Pascagoula, Miss.
Thanks to 70-pound helmets filled with compressed air, you can walk among more than 160 species of tropical fish, coral and stingrays, all without getting your hair wet. Giant angelfish and butterfly fish are not at all skittish. They'll swim right up to you and brush against you. Many will allow guests to pet them.
"Our guests are always asking to get closer and closer to the animals," said Shannon Zimmerman, supervisor of aquarium at Discovery Cove.
For $59 in addition to regular park admission, guests are provided with wetsuits, helmets and instruction.
Hand signals and amusing and informational notes on Etch-a-Sketch-like board from the Discovery Cove divers keep all the SeaVenture guests safe and in the know.
"Does anyone want to swim with the sharks?," "Is everyone OK?" and "Let's feed some fish" are some of the quickly scrawled underwater messages -- and in just seconds, hundreds of fish are swimming around scooping up food. A glass partition provides a stunning view of the sharks next door.
During the walk, Discovery Cove divers -- there's a 3-to-1 ratio and a maximum of nine guests per tour -- bring out sea critters for show and tell. You can't hear the giggles underwater, but you know the hermit crab, sea star and sea urchin passed around are making guests laugh -- and maybe even shriek a little.
"We try to change the animals each day," Zimmerman said.
Underwater photo opportunities are plentiful, and the park allows you to bring your camera with you or borrow one of theirs.
The trip below the surface isn't ideal for those with claustrophobia. The helmets, which have a flat front panel, take some getting adjusted to. Peripheral vision is practically nonexistent and staying vertical keeps the water from entering the helmet, so divers must keep their eyes straight ahead and turn at their shoulders.
Those who don't like fish may think twice before diving as well. Fish will come up to say hello but that friendly demeanor means they might try to nibble on you a little as well.
One especially friendly hogfish tried to, well, hog the limelight during an underwater group photo.
"I got to actually pet the hogfish," said Amy Hollingsworth, who had brought her-15-year-old sons with her to Discovery Cove. "I got to graze his belly."
This column origanally appeared at Visit Florida.