PADI Shark Awareness course
THE EDINBURGH TRAIN deposits me at North Queensferry. The narrow lane tumbles headlong down the hillside, half the panorama dominated by red steel spans, half by picturesque dwellings scattered like dice, pooled at the water’s edge.
The Ferrybridge Hotel lies bathed in late afternoon sunlight. Deep Sea World aquarium is just a minute’s stroll round the corner.
Dive Officer Tina Aydon greets me in reception, heralded by the theme from Pirates of the Caribbean. They’re running a promotion, and kids in costume get in free. Fortunately the marauding hordes have left with their parents for the day, so we’re afforded safe passage through the labyrinth.
Originally from Christchurch, New Zealand, Tina conducts outreach trips to schools, taking portable rock pools into the classroom to engage everyone from nursery to university level. There are marine biologists and zoologists on the staff of six full-time divers, and the aquarium is a major Scottish tourist attraction.
Displays showcase everything from breeding piranha to a rock pool of indigenous coral and anemones.
The centrepiece of Deep Sea World is a 112m moving walkway that loops through the main tank. Everything looks smaller through the convex glass, though naturally the sharks stand out. Tinkerbell is the mama at 3m long. Patch, Hook, Scout, Lewis, Iona and Arran make up the Magnificent Seven.
The tank’s supporting cast are all native to British waters, including sea bass, cod, pollack, lobsters, crabs and a reclusive conger eel.
Unfortunately, I’ve missed the love action. Scout, the newly acquired male sand tiger from an affiliate in Ireland, decided to establish his credentials with the ladies.
As I’ll learn on tomorrow’s PADI Shark Awareness course, males don’t take their intended to the pictures, but bite their way up her torso to position themselves for what comes naturally. Unfortunately Scout chose to date Tinkerbell who, ever the diva, bit back hard enough to leave a fang sticking out just behind his eye. Definitely a case of Carcharias taurus coitus interruptus.
“The vet wasn’t too impressed,” says Tina. Johnny Rotten grins and fins off into the gloaming. Sand tigers are said to be ideally suited for aquarium life because they’re “low maintenance”.
THE SHARKS ARE FED TWICE WEEKLY on trevally and saithe, oily mackerel occasionally. Their food is bought in from local fishmongers, but what about “collateral damage”
Tina’s team carry out regular head-counts of the stock, and there are civilian casualties. She points out Stumpy, the gilt-head bream, who flutters round the tank like a wound-down clockwork toy, missing his tail.
Backstage, we enter quarantine. Here new arrivals spend time under staff supervision to ensure that they’re fit and healthy before being introduced front of house.
Specimens, such as the small moray eel the owner of which moved house, are donated by the public, or by local fishermen who discover curios in their lobster pots.
Unlike many aquariums Deep Sea World doesn’t have to make salt water, as it can be pumped directly from the Forth. Temperature is kept at a minimum 12°C for the sharks’ benefit.
I settle in with the menu at the Ferrybridge Hotel, and as it’s Friday there’s a disco. It finishes around midnight with the Proclaimers’ I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles). Priceless.
There’s a queue at the aquarium before opening time. A band of child pirates keep the divers in check until the five of us are ushered into the classroom with instructor Chris Rowe.
It transpires that the PADI Shark Awareness course is a popular gift for boys from wives and girlfriends. Now we know what they’re in hysterics about on a girls’ night out. But Rose is going in with partner Graham.
Chris takes us through shark biology – their cartilage composition, use of fins, and shark skin, coated with denticles to minimise drag. We have developed this technology to make swimsuits, boats and planes more efficient.
The most absorbing section covers shark teeth, continually replaced every 8-10 days, rotating into position on a “floating” jaw that gives the predator extra reach for attacks.
I hadn’t realised that a shark’s bite pressure is comparable with our own.
Chris encourages us to try to identify and match teeth from various species. None of us is particularly proficient, but we all manage to work out which belongs to a sand tiger.
The classroom doubles as a shark mortuary, with specimen jars containing still-born angel sharks, and the jaw of a sand tiger,
a former occupant. The teeth are needle-sharp.
Tina warns us that the display jaw, still strangely menacing, has caused more bloodshed than anything in the tank. It exudes an hypnotic suggestion for the curious to see if their heads will pass through it.
IN THE TUNNEL we watch Tina’s dive team feed the sharks, using long-handled forks. The divers are strapping fellows, yet look stunted through the Perspex canopy.
The bucket is soon empty. Tina tells me about a PHD student who observed that the sharks were drawn to their habitual white bucket, which was empty, yet ignored a newly introduced red bucket containing food.
Lunch in the cafeteria is included in the course fee. We then congregate in quarantine to kit up. Drysuits are supplied, but I opt for my own 5mm. Tina hands me twice my normal lead weight: “I want you to sink like a brick.”
Fair enough. There is a maximum of four guest-divers per group, so Tina and fellow-guide Louis Pounder take Dean, Kenny and me first. We step into the holding pool to make our final checks, before ducking under the arch and creeping onto the submerged staging in the main tank and 4.5 million litres of sea water.
One by one we descend the shotline to the sand. Once assembled, we follow Tina’s beautifully articulate hand signals.
No fins are used in the tank, so movement is unconventional. We walk in single file, leaning forward, like something out of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, keeping a close eye on where we place our feet, mindful of the angel sharks that camouflage themselves on the bottom.
The rock habitat funnels us close to the viewing tunnel. It’s amusing to see the faces of those inside following our progress among the shoals and sharks. We wave and they wave back, both parties thrilled to be on their respective sides of the glass.
It is a surreal diving experience, but we are definitely visiting the sharks’ home. Situated directly beneath the car park, artificial light paints them silver as they home in from the dark recesses of the rock formations. They can’t fin down to 50m here, so we have the luxury of close interaction.
Crossing the tunnel requires new diving skills. We’ve been briefed to add a couple of short puffs to our buoyancy, then bounce, jump and scull with our hands. Tina makes it look easy, but the rest of us struggle.
I feel mortified with the public looking on, as I imitate a giraffe in roller-skates on ice.
Louis gives the base of my tank a shove, and Tina grabs my flailing hand to pull me over as my finless feet kick thin air.
The Perspex is tough, developed by NASA to be used in Space Shuttle windows. Even so, the aquarium doesn’t want it scratched and dinged by over-weighted divers. The team spend hours cleaning it to optimise visibility for the public. “There’s a lot of fish poo,” Tina confided.
TINA GENTLY UNCOVERS angel sharks buried in the sand. She is convinced that the female is pregnant. We are in the feeding area, and scour the sand for the needle-like teeth shed during the feed.
This area brings us into much closer and more frequent contact with the circling sharks. Having been rammed by one years ago, I know the punch they pack, even at cruising speed.
Hats off to the team for capturing Scout to move him to his new home, which involved enveloping him in a specially made stretcher before manhandling him out of the water.
The tank is 6m at the deepest point, though only 3m above the tunnel ceiling.
Tina still carries a pony bottle to comply with Health & Safety, and two members of the dive team stationed on the catwalks above us tap on the walkways to notify their colleagues under water when sharks are moving in. At no point does the dive feel risky.
“The HSE inspector is a lovely old boy, and I’ve offered to take him in. But he’s terrified of sharks,” says Tina.
She has developed a shark-diving programme for 8-15-year-olds, evolved from the PADI Bubblemaker course, where the kids view from the railed staging. “I love teaching the kids. They have no fear. You tell them what to do – they just do it.”
This initiative was so successful that the Spanish parent company released funds for smaller drysuits and boots and hoiked the price, but every junior shark dive is fully subscribed.
The staff feel that the parent company should reinvest more in Deep Sea World, as its success subsidises the other European affiliates.
I STILL HAVE 170 BAR of the 210 with which I started, but I’m grateful to ascend the shot and emerge after our 45-minute safari. The cold was starting to bite through my wetsuit, and I feel a bit guilty for winding Louis up about his need for a hood.
We’re brought mugs of hot coffee and tea while we “Wow!” and “Amazing!” between ourselves. Hot showers are available to take off the chill. Mind your step if walking barefoot round quarantine post-dive, however, in case someone dropped a souvenir shark tooth.
Chris hands round the certificates and application forms for our Shark Awareness certification cards.
When the plastic turns up a fortnight later, it’s a bit of an anti-climax. You would think PADI would put a photo of a shark on the card. Where are the bragging rights in flashing a scenic picture of a reef when you’ve been in with a sand tiger or seven
If you want that sort of soft coral thing, there’s a Nemo to suit every pocket when you exit through the gift shop. Tina picks me out a cuddly seahorse instead. The rebel.
So now it’s just a slog back up that mountain lane to the station, lugging my kit and singing through my teeth. You know the words:
But-da I wud wok five hun-dread miles
Ann-daa I wud wok five hun-dread more
Jus-ta beee tha’ man who wok-ed a thou-sand miles
Ta foll down at yaw daw
The Shark Awareness Course costs £185, kit hire £30. Details from www.deepseaworld.com