Birch hosts ‘Snorkel with Sharks’ events throughout the summer
by Judith Lea Garfield
Published - 07/14/11 - 12:05 PM | 10949 views | 0 0 comments | 8 8 recommendations | email to a friend | print

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“It's the coolest thing ever!” So gushed Valerie Balsh, who snorkeled with sharks at La Jolla Shores on July 9 as part of an event put on by the Birch Aquarium at Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

One of four two-hour snorkel tours hosted by aquarium naturalists this summer, “Snorkel with Sharks” is a face-to-face excursion with local sharks. Beyond the famous leopard sharks, local species include horn, swell, soupfin, angel and gray smoothhound sharks.

In addition to snorkeling, naturalists at the event highlight the ecology of the sharks’ underwater home in the San-Diego La Jolla Underwater Park Ecological Reserve, a no-take reserve. The entry off La Jolla Shores is a unique beach where people can observe sharks in shallow water mere steps from the sand, making it an accessible classroom for discussing the reserve’s importance and the need for greater citizen stewardship.

“We hope participants gain a better understanding of the various local shark species,” said Art Smart, one of the aquarium naturalists leading the event said. “Sharing an environment with sharks changes people’s opinions.”

During the event's first half hour, everyone crowded a table set with skeletal shark jaws and pictures of the local species. The naturalists do a show-and-tell about local sharks, including special physiology, such as why their jelly-filled skin pores produce voltage in response to temperature change. By the time the snorkelers are ready to get in the water, they understand enough about the shy, though toothy, fish to abandon the generally accepted nonsense that sharks are a blatant danger.

No theme park can compete with a snorkel adventure in the wild hosted by people who are knowledgeable about shark natural history. Exciting yet safe, snorkeling in a group relaxes those feeling trepidation about the open ocean. And because the wildlife is not constrained in exhibits, even if one doesn’t see what he or she expected, surprises are always in store. On the morning of July 9, snorkelers saw some leopard sharks, but they also saw lots of shovelnose guitarfish rays, bat rays and schools of topsmelt fish.

Was the event worth it? Caelen Proctor, visiting from Florida, said, “It's a lot of fun. I'd do it again.” High praise from someone who is used to ocean temperatures closer to that of bath water. Balsh, here for the summer from Washington, emerged from the water dripping wet and ecstatic.

“I think I've found my new hobby!” she said.

You, too, can get schooled and enthused about these amazing, yet sometimes misunderstood, animals. To reserve a space on July 23 or 30, RSVP at (858) 534-7336 or at Intermediate swimming ability is required, and participants supply their own gear. The cost is $30 per person.

Can't get enough shark stuff? Head over to the Birch Aquarium on July 16 or 17 for Shark SEA Days. The special hands-on program is dedicated to everything shark and has something for all ages. On the evening of July 28, hear ocean author Susan Casey speak on "Demon Fish: Travels Through the Hidden World of Sharks."

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