Home is where the sharks are, and several years ago Ripley’s Aquarium of Canada was my home – when I worked as an aquarist for the animal husbandry team.
Three and a half years later, my husband Joey and I had the good fortune of visiting the aquarium once again, and while little has changed, so much felt different.
Ripley’s Aquarium of Canada first opened in October 2013, and although the attraction had original plans for being built in Niagara Falls, these plans changed and the Aquarium was eventually relocated to downtown Toronto, at the base of the CN tower. Being the largest indoor aquarium in Canada, Ripley’s has an impressive collection of fresh and saltwater animals from around the world. In fact, there are over 5.7 million liters of water running through the various life support systems and 450 different species in the tanks.
Of the 50 live exhibits, Dangerous Lagoon is easily one of the most riveting tanks at Ripley’s. With sand tigers, sawfish and sandbar sharks circling the water column above guest’s heads, this underwater gallery comprises tropical western Atlantic species and was made to represent the environment found just off the coast of South Carolina.
For visitors not only does the aquarium boasts large fish and lots of scaley colors, but the educational aspects provided are both captivating and engrossing. Several times per week fearless divers are briefed and taken for a 30-minute swim in the shark tank by trained staff. This Discover Dive is the perfect way to learn while experiencing some of nature’s most feared animals up close and personal.
“Sharks they are so scary! How could you do something so crazy? Aren’t you worried you’ll get bitten?”
That is the most common reaction I get when I tell people about some of my favorite shark diving experiences – and I’ve had my fair share of shark diving opportunities.
Read more about scuba diving with sharks in Jupiter, Florida:
Sitting pretty right next to the gulf stream, the city of Jupiter is known as one of Florida’s best shark diving locations. Drift along in the current as you enjoy an up-close encounter with the ocean’s apex predators.
Sharks may be the ocean’s most successful predator but they are also grossly misunderstood creatures. Some admire this apex predator, while generations raised on Jaws fear them to the point where they won’t even get in the water. Time and time again sharks have been painted by the media as bloodthirsty killing machines. But the reality is, in a natural setting they are timid animals with dwindling populations.
Every year 100 million sharks are killed for their fins alone. And if this trend continues, certain species will be facing extinction in the imminent future. Sharks can be intimidating creatures, but we need to realize that they are worth more alive than dead.
Through diving and other eco-tourism activities, people are introduced to sharks as a creature rather than a monster, shedding new light on how we view these big animals.
From the Dangerous Lagoon overview, I watched as the dorsal fins of two sand tiger sharks sliced across the surface of the water. I turn to Joey with a smile and wonder if he’s ready for our dive in the shark tank.
While we are no strangers to shark diving, aquarium diving is an entirely different world. Everything is wound a bit tighter. When you first you get in the water it’s not surprising to have a cloud of fish surround your person. Here the animals aren’t as reserved as in the wild, after all, they often associate aquarists with feeding time.
In order to minimize containment to the tanks and species that live there, Joey and I were given aquarium gear to use for the dive. Typically, no cameras are permitted on this experience for the safety of the divers and animals but considering my extensive experience and the nature of our visit, as the media person covering the tank for Canadian Splash, I received special permission to dive with my camera. After preping the camera gear, suiting up in the provided equipment and going over the safety briefing with Dave our shark tender and Steve our divemaster, we were ready to go.
Our group of four entered the waist-deep water of the acclimatization pool reminiscent of my good old days as an aquarist. Then, follow-the-leader style, we exited through the square gateway, into the 2.9 million liter showpiece of Ripley’s Aquarium.
Despite the fact that I’ve dived in Dangerous Lagoon many times before, it took me a few seconds to register what I’m floating in – a tank full of sharks. It’s always a sobering feeling to witness these 250-300 pound sharks circling nearby. They seemed perfectly at ease with the additional human presence in their home.
As much as I wish I could say I began the Discover Dive in a mellow state, like the sharks, the first few minutes in the tank left me with adrenaline surging jitters. To calm my excited jitters, I inhale and exhale deeply into my regulator. The air bubbles escape the sides of my mouthpiece and cascade towards the artificially light surface scaring a fish or two in the process. Once I slowed my breathing down and accustomed myself to this different – more confined – style of diving, I watched this man-made underwater world unfold.
Our first stop was an open sandy patch at the base of the acclimatization pool. Surrounded by a rainbow of fake coral and the glass tunnel walkway, this area allowed us to deflate our BDC and settle in on the white sand. Sometimes the best wildlife observations are done kneeling on the ocean – or in this case tank – floor enjoying our front row seats to one of nature’s greatest shows. There was so much to be seen!
Woosh! Undulating its pectoral fins like series of rippling waves, a roughtail stingray (Dasyatis centroura) passes overhead in a curious and friendly manner. Gauging the size of its wingspan in relation to Joey’s proportions, the stingray had a body diameter that was easily the width of his outstretched arms, if not bigger. The stingray whirls around our dive group several times, showing off the graceful and elegant way it can fly through the water, before scaling the glass tunnel and disappearing out of sight.
Swiveling my head in another direction, a small group of yellowtail snappers (Ocyurus chrysurus) catches my attention. They emerge from the seclusion of the artificial red coral to investigate us divers. These schooling fish have white teardrop-shaped bodies and a distinctive yellow stripe running from their mouth to their tail, hence the name yellowtail snapper. It’s a simple yet distinctive look for them. I inhale sharply and let a few brave ones get close before releasing my breath and sending the snappers into a panic over my exhaled bubbles.
Looking behind me, one of the smaller species of sharks in Dangerous Lagoon is lurking just out of reach. And by little, I still mean about 5 feet long. This guy just appears little, when compared to the rest of Dangerous Lagoon’s toothy inhabitants.
Motoring along, like a sleek grey airplane, the “little” sandbar (Carcharhinus plumbeus) seemed curious yet reclusive all at the same time. As he swims by us, his pectoral fin barely brushed the edge of my wetsuit, almost as if to say “move out of the way, this is my tank”. In looking into the whites of his eyes, I could see a coy intelligence that scientists are only beginning to understand when it comes to sharks.
We hung out on the sandy patch for about 10-minutes before moving through the Lagoon to our next location – a large window at the back of the tank.
Staying low to the bottom, our foursome weaved around the maze of fake coral. It took a little strategic maneuvering, but soon we had positioned ourselves in front of the window, at the furthest point from the entry/exit of Dangerous Lagoon. Cupping my hands to the window, I was able to filter out the bright light and look beyond the tank. Outside I saw a couple of human silhouettes watching us from the other side of the glass. Waving excitedly, I give them a kid-in-a-candy-shop grin while using my imaginary scrub brush to clean the coral. I guess old aquarist habits die hard.
Turning my attention back to the tank I gaze out at the animated world swimming before me. The picture window is probably one of my favorite spots in the Dangerous Lagoon tank. From here, divers can get a stunning overview of everything the tank has to offer. Between the maze of tunnels snaking in and out of the walls and the two large sawfish snoozing away in the most random places of the enclosure, the window is a great perch to observe what’s going on.
Getting the okay from Dave and Steve, I floated up suspending myself just below the surface of the tank to capture the magnificent overview. Rising up off the bottom brought me a little closer to the action, with sand tigers making regular passes a few feet overhead – close enough for me to count their teeth.
While I dangled mid-water getting cozy with the sharks, it was comforting to know that thanks to the square pane of window at my back, the only thing that would be sneaking up from behind was a guest with a camera flash.
Time flew by in the tank, and before we knew it, we were moving on to our final location.
Getting to the yellow submarine was the trickiest part of our dive. Not only did we need to hop over the glass tunnel, but the submarine is located in one of the high traffic areas of the tank.
Finning several meters away from the picture window, we arrived at the base of the tunnel where we would be hopping over to the submarine. However, the tank had another challenge in store. Resting just outside of the entrance to the cave I could see the jagged rostrum of the male sawfish poking out from the top of the tunnel.
Keeping low to the bottom, we approached the edge of the tunnel and waited patiently for this large animal to do something. It didn’t take the sawfish long to notice our presence and move to another area of the tank. But not before nose-diving off the glass tunnel and nearly swatting our heads with his big body in the process.
Despite the fact that we had been warned prior to the dive that the submarine was a popular hangout spot for the tanks resident green moray, for some reason I hadn’t expected to get so lucky. You can imagine my elated surprise when we began assembling around the sub for a few photo ops and I discovered a snake-like body and opened-mouth grimace peering out at me from beneath the submarines plating. Judging by the gnarly teeth and unflinching manner, I decided to leave the eel to his own devices and found another pocket to photograph the submarine from.
Interesting Information: Did you know that green morays are actually a blue-grey colour? They get the green tint from a layer of yellow mucus covers their body to protect them from parasites.
We were in the shark tank a little longer than anticipated. At 22 degrees Celsius, it’s hard to imagine getting cold in a tank like this, but towards the end of the dive, I could feel as my body began to shiver. Looking at Joey I could tell he was getting a tad chilly as well. I guess that’s the price to pay for being a photographer. You don’t move around as much as you should.
Finishing up the dive, we exited the tank in the same manner through which we entered, through the square acclimatization pool portal. It was sad leaving our fishy friends behind but I was really looking forward to warming up in the locker room showers.
At the surface of the water, we thanked our in-water crew and the wonderful aquarium staff who made this dive possible. Most people don’t realize how much time and energy goes into organizing an activity like this. Once all was said and done, we headed off to the changing room to warm our goosebump riddled body and reflect on the incredible dive opportunity we’d just bore witness to.
Diving in the Ripley’s Dangerous Lagoon shark tank, is an experience Joey and I will be talking about for a long time. Day in and day out, the incredible collection of animals at the aquarium act as ambassadors for their entire species, educating and inspiring people to fall in love with the ocean.
I reflect on what makes aquarium diving so appealing – the guaranteed wildlife encounters, the intimate animal interactions, the controlled setting. I can understand why it’s a popular activity in aquariums across the USA. Canada not so much, as of yet. I think that’s what made this dive so special. If you asked me whether I prefer aquarium or ocean diving, I wouldn’t be able to answer one or the other, because to me, the two are so incomparably different.
Thee cost to enjoy a Discovery Dive in the Ripley’s Aquarium of Canada Dangerous Lagoon tank is $250 plus tax. Please note that annual pass holders save 10% on that price.
This price includes admission to the aquarium, all dive gear, a 30-minute submersion in the tank, photography and souvenir items such as a towel, bag, strap wrap and more.
Ripley’s Aquarium of Canada is open all year round however the scuba diving schedule is restricted to certain days of the week. Typically the Dangerous Lagoon diving tours happen on Saturdays at 3PM and Sundays at 1PM.
These dive times are subject to change depending on availability and demand. Please check the aquarium’s website and reserve your spot well in advance to ensure you can enjoy a discover dive on your next visit.
Scuba diving in the Ripley’s Aquarium of Canada Dangerous Lagoon tank is a fun and exciting endeavor that is not without its limitations.
On top of having a minimum Open Water dive certification and being 16 year of age or older, prospective divers must ensure they fill out the appropriate medical form and if needed bring a doctor’s note as proof of fitness to dive. Divers must also have been diving in the past two years.
On the dive day, visitors will be provided with aquarium equipment to avoid outside contamination with the option of bringing their own personal mask. For the safety of the animals and scuba divers, the Discovery Dive program is done with two divers at a time and does not permit the use of a camera or GoPro equipment in the tank. The total dive time is restricted to 30-minutes.
Ripley’s Aquarium of Canada is a unique aquarium facility located in the heart of downtown Toronto at the base of the CN Tower.
Have you ever tried diving inside an aquarium? Which aquarium did you visit? Let us know in the comments below what your experience was like and if you would do it again.
Writers Note: This scuba diving post was sponsored by Ripley’s Aquarium of Canada as a part of our Canadian Splash photography and dive initiative. A special thank you goes out to Bonny and Andre Perron for photographing and providing us with outer tank images for this post. Want to explore more diving in Ontario? Take a look at H2O Ontario to discover more interesting Ontario-based dive adventures.
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