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Aquarium to offer shark encounters

Soon you can swim with the sharks at the Florida Aquarium.

Certified divers who sign a waiver and pay $100 would be eligible for a new program believed to be the first of its kind in the country, aquarium officials said.

"We want to offer a unique experience," said Sue Ellen Richardson, director of marketing and public relations at the aquarium. "If you dive with a shark, you are not going to forget it."

At Sea World in San Antonio, Texas, you can snorkel behind a barrier with sharks on the other side. In the Bahamas, you are let down in a cage.

At the Florida Aquarium, there will be no barrier. No cage.

Will it be safe?

"Absolutely," said Richardson, who said the program could begin as early as October. "We wouldn't do this unless we thought 100 percent that this could be done safely, not only for our guest, but responsibility on our side, too."

Certified divers who want to go into the tank will have to take an hourlong course beforehand, which will go over policies and give information on sharks. Two divers will be allowed into the tank for about 30 minutes with two aquarium "safety divers" as chaperones.

The divers will start out in a cage but eventually move freely in the tank, which is 65 feet by 35 feet and 13 feet deep.

There will be no feeding. The sharks at the aquarium are pole-fed only.

And there won't be much swimming, except by the sharks. Mostly divers will be "hanging out at the bottom of the tank," said Andrea Davis, public relations coordinator.

"Sharks will come to them. If the diver is swimming, the sharks are going to scatter," she said.

Divers will get within a few feet of the sharks.

Inside the tank are six species of sharks: nurse sharks, zebra sharks, sand tiger, wobbegong, black nose and black tip. None are more than 6 feet long. And none are bull sharks, the kind responsible for the attack on 8-year-old Jessie Arbogast off the coast of Pensacola last year.

Aquarium officials hope the program will dispel myths most people have about the oceanic predators.

"We don't want people to run up to sharks," Richardson said, "but we want them to respect them."

Last March, the aquarium started a new exhibit: Sharks! From Fear to Fascination, which allowed two employee divers into the tank while visitors watched.

The exhibit, which has two shows per day, has been a hit with visitors and the media. The St. Petersburg Times outdoors writer Terry Tomalin went down into the tank for a story, one of the first times the aquarium let non-employees into the tank.

Soon, people were calling, and the aquarium had a waiting list of people who wanted to go down. And that got aquarium officials thinking _ in particular, Thom Stork, who took the helm of the Florida Aquarium in April.

"He said, "That's a winner program,' " said Richardson. "To provide something that is not available at another facility, now that's the cat's meow."

Stork, who had never run an aquarium, made his name in theme parks. He oversaw a $20-million budget as vice president of marketing at Sea World in Orlando and helped Busch Entertainment Corp. develop a new theme park, Discovery Cove.

He took over the 7-year-old Florida Aquarium just as it was moving toward stable financial ground. Still, there are debts: City taxpayers, who took over the aquarium's debts in 1996, still give the facility $700,000 annually.

A swim with the shark exhibit will put them on the map, officials say.

The details are being worked out. Legal and insurance approval came about three weeks ago. Now there is marketing homework being done, Richardson said.

"We are trying to see in the Tampa Bay market if there are divers out there," she said.

The cost is being worked out, but is expected to be about $100.

Will people bite at the deal?

"Absolutely," said Marilyn Pollard, who was visiting the aquarium Monday from New Jersey. She has dived with sting rays and said she wouldn't be scared with sharks.

But Ralph Blinn, another aquarium visitor, said he would pass on a chance to swim with sharks.

"I've seen the movie," he said.

_ Staff writer Ryan Meehan contributed to this report.