Fun fact: you can go scuba diving in two of the tanks at the Downtown Aquarium in Denver!

Best Valentine's Day present ever: diving at the aquarium!

I'm an extraordinarily lucky girl to have found a guy who's not just an awesome travel buddy, but shares all my same passions of diving and adventuring and enjoying life. He flew out to visit me for Valentines day, and told me the night before that my present was a trip to the aquarium to go diving in the reef exhibit AND the shark exhibit. I pretty much died of happy. We were driving in the car and all I could do was bounce up and down in my seat with a lunatic grin on my face, too excited to find words.

We arrived at the aquarium bright and early, found the dive bar to the right after the main entrance, and sat in the lounge area where we met our divemaster. We were the only two diving in the reef exhibit, so after chatting and comparing notes on being instructors and filling out all the fun liability releases, she led us up the elevator to the surface level of the tanks. It's pretty cool to see the behind-the-scenes workings of an aquarium. It's all pathways between the different tanks and wheelbarrows full of gear.

We were geared up in the aquariums gear so as to avoid contaminating the tanks, and handed off to our divemaster for the reef exhibit. About two feet under the surface of the tank there was a ledge that we were instructed to sit on, while we literally had all our gear done up for us. Quite a strange experience when you're used to not only donning your own gear, but hauling it all around as well. Sort of like one of those scenes out of a medieval royal palace where the queen is just standing there while all her servants dress her. Only with scuba gear.

Our divemaster was delighted that we were both instructors because we didn't make him wear his full-face mask with wireless audio systems that would have clipped onto each of our masks so that he could talk to us. Who's brilliant invention was that anyway? Half the joy of diving is that you can only hear the sound of your own breathing, which is a very relaxing and meditative place to be for an hour. Diving in groups is tolerable because the divemaster isn't a tour guide yammering on about the importance of this and that. Is all that about to change with technology? Please just no.

The reef exhibit was full of wonderful things: two nurse sharks cuddling in the corner, a turtle napping in a separate corner, several eels hiding in nooks and crannies, one green moray eel taking a snooze under half a fake clam shell, a lovely stingray, a 300-lb grouper, a smaller grouper that had been rescued from an fish pet store, and an ugly pink sheepshead wrasse that would not leave my camera alone. Every time I tried to take a picture of something, he would swim straight at my camera relentlessly.

We were told that our dive would be as long as our air permitted, but Fletch and I, both being experienced divers (ignore the above picture), and good on air consumption, started getting the chills long before our tanks were even close to halfway empty. At about 50 minutes we decided we had swum around and around the tank to our hearts' content (I don't know how those fish tolerate that tiny little space their entire lives), so we had our gear removed by our divemaster, taken away and decontaminated for the next dive, while we spent the next half hour or so standing under a scalding hot shower, trying to warm up a little bit.

And then we entered the shark tank.

This is a sand tiger shark. These guys have so many teeth that they can't even close their mouths all the way.

I love shark dives, especially that first gut-wrenching moment when you're bobbing on the surface, can only see a haze of what lies beneath, but you know that those creatures that have inspired an entire sub-catergory of horror films are lurking just beneath your toes. Do you dare go any farther? For me that's the biggest adrenaline rush, that moment of not knowing what's going on down there. Once you descend into their territory, and can see that they clearly have no interest in you, all is well.

Thanks to movies like Jaws, the majority of the world has an incredible fear of sharks. I've yet to teach a scuba class in which someone hasn't desperately spouted out that they hope they never see a shark, to which I always reply with my shark spiel. Sharks really aren't the blood-thirty man killing machines they're made out to be. Do they deserve a healthy amount of respect? Most definitely. Do they deserve to be the focus of your nightmares? Probably not. Statistics vary, but annually, there are between 1 and 5 deaths from shark attacks per year. Compare that to 13 deaths per year by vending machine. Yes, going to retrieve that coke is more dangerous than the shark that is undoubtably lurking somewhere off the beach where you are swimming. Despite what all those horror movies have been telling you, most sharks are actually very picky eaters, and humans just are not their preferred snack. And to prove my point, I and all the other divers who went and sat in the shark tank with a dozen or so sharks, lived to tell the tale.

There was a gutter along the outskirts of the tanks that we spent most of our time kneeling in, observing all the sharks swimming around and around in sinisterly slow, deliberate circles. Sand tiger sharks like the one above, sandbar sharks, zebra sharks, guitarfish, and sawfish, all creeping about like they were waiting for the opportune moment for something. They really are beautiful creatures to watch. So much strength and power, and to think that they've been around for 450 million years. Sitting there, and watching them swim about, nearly brushing up against us at times, was purely mesmerizing.

With so many sharks in such a small area, it was relatively easy to find shark teeth scattered across the sand. We got to spend some time looking for shark teeth, Fletch and I found 5, and then our divemaster cautiously led us over to the window where we got to see the view from the inside of the fish tank looking out, and play peek-a-boo and hand games with the little kids on the other side.

After the dive we took another scalding hot shower, and then headed to the aquarium's restaurant for an early dinner. We had worked up such an appetite diving in the cold water that we couldn't wait for our reservation. Our waitress politely laughed at our questions about whether we were eating the fish from the exhibit, despite the fact that she had probably heard the exact same joke from every other table, and we were served a very satisfying meal complete with some fruity concoction of drinks. A relaxing end to a fun-filled day.