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Diving with Sharks in the Desert

Dive in at Mandalay Bay's Shark Reef Aquarium
By Becca Hurley | Updated On March 18, 2019
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Diving with Sharks in the Desert

Diving with sharks in the middle of a desert? It’s possible. The 1.3 million-gallon tank at Mandalay Bay’s Shark Reef Aquarium features 15 species of sharks, and the reef itself is quite the sight from outside the glass or inside the tank.

Lucky for us, we recently had the chance to see the exhibit and the sharks up close underwater.

The Dive with Sharks experience starts with a tour of the entire Shark Reef Aquarium facility, as well as 14 exhibits that are home to more than 2,000 animals and various aquatic predators. We got an up-close view into the life of rare animals, including piranhas, Komodo dragons and Burmese pythons.

Then, like VIPs, we’re escorted behind the scenes to the diver staging area. But not before walking by several shark jaw models and getting a lesson on shark teeth regeneration. Each diver’s own locker and dive gear await in a very spacious changing area, complete with hot showers and snacks for the post-dive celebration.

It is here where we gear up and don the chain mail provided. Putting on and wearing the heavy protective gear is an experience in and of itself. The best part about it is in most cases you don’t even need to wear a weight belt. Is it necessary? Probably not. But, it is required as an extra safety measure even though all the sharks featured in the tank are not considered aggressive in nature or known to be aggressive toward divers.

Next up, a very detailed briefing by our guide on the dive plan and species we will encounter, including sand tiger sharks, zebra sharks and a Galapagos shark, to name a few. Then, it’s off to the holding tank, where we wait for the “all clear” to start our dive. As the gate that separates us from the exhibit lifts, we make our way in and across the tank to sit atop the “shipwreck.” We wait here a few minutes to let the sharks get used to our presence and then we continue the dive, descending through the swim-throughs of the wreck exhibit, past a giant sleeping green sea turtle, and then make our way to the sand, where we sit and observe the sharks swimming by.

Most pretend we are not even there, a reaction similar to that of sharks in the wild. But a few curious whitetip reef sharks seem to enjoy our company and come to rest across our fins in the sand. If I move, the shark moves with me, almost acting more like a remora than a shark.

The max depth is 22 feet, and water temperatures vary between 74 and 78 degrees Fahrenheit. With a shallow depth, divers who are good on air can make this experience last much longer than the average 45-minute dive time stated on the website. We were lucky to spend more than an hour underwater with the sharks.

An extra special treat was collecting shark teeth from the sand to take home. Since sharks have several layers of teeth arranged like conveyor belts, they are constantly shedding and regenerating teeth. It’s a fun souvenir to take home to commemorate the dive.

But, why would you dive with sharks in an aquarium?

Diving with sharks in the open ocean is always a special experience, and there’s no substitute for interacting with animals in the wild. But for some, an experience diving in an aquarium might be their only feasible option to interact with sharks. Unfortunately, many new divers still possess a fear of sharks due to how sharks have been depicted in the media for years. This fear can be a barrier for new divers. Experiences like the Dive with Sharks program at Mandalay Bay can show hesitant divers, as well as guests viewing the interaction from outside the tank, that there really is nothing to fear.

General curator and PADI instructor Jack Jewell, who was also our dive guide, said the program’s primary goal “is to educate the public to inspire to conserve these species in the wild.” He added that “the staff of Shark Reef are advocates and ambassadors for conservation of these species.”

The Shark Reef Aquarium is accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums as an animal-care facility.