March 8, 2006 – A small crowd gathered around the shark pool at Coral World on Thursday, watching the lemon, nurse, and black tip reef sharks circle around two brave souls who had waded into the center.
It was one of a few trial runs for Coral World staff, who are starting to allow guests into the shark pool, carefully guided by a trained staff member.
The shark experience is "just an effort to interact more with the animals," said Coral World marketing manager Allegra Kean.
The suggestion came from a shore excursion manager visiting the park.
"Obviously, this isn't something everyone will do," Kean said.
But at just $19.75 per person, plus the cost of Coral World admission, it's relatively affordable considering the price of other tourist experiences, Kean said.
Each person can spend eight to 10 minutes crouching quietly in snorkel gear in the center of the pool, staying out of the shark's well-defined swim path.
"After all, it is their house," said Peter Noah, Coral World vice president of operations, who guided Thursday's guests into the pool.
There may be a waiting list once word gets out, though. Coral World is planning just three or four shark wades per day, and only four people can go at each time. Two people enter the pool with a trained Coral World staff member, while the other two wait their turn.
"They're really magnificent animals and this is an experience you won't get anywhere else," Noah said.
Safety is high on the list of Noah's concerns – not just for the people, but for the sharks as well.
In an ironic twist, Noah's said his first concern is to make sure the sharks are not scared. With splashing, loud noises and jumping, sharks can spook easily – a point Noah reiterated several times.
"We want to keep things as calm as possible in their environment," he said.
Guests are not allowed to touch the sharks, and sudden movements are not tolerated.
The visit starts with a detailed briefing on sharks' habits in their natural environment and information on getting into the pool. Guests sign a waiver before putting on snorkel gear, water shoes and a weighted belt. The purpose of the belt, Noah said, is to help guests keep their balance in the water and to discourage sudden movement.
After guests visit the sharks, they are given more educational information, and may be able to touch one once the guests are safely out of the pool.
Only 30 of the 375 species of sharks in the world are considered dangerous, Noah said. Of course, three of those 30 species are in the pool at Coral World.
The nurse shark is the most commonly seen in V.I. waters. The Coral World pool also features lemon sharks and black tip reef sharks. In addition to the sharks, the shark pool houses a barracuda, a few lobsters and several other smaller fish.
Some of the small fish were surprisingly territorial, nipping at one shark pool guest's feet.
To allay guests' fears, Noah said statistics show a person is more likely to be killed by a vending machine-related accident than by a shark bite.
Noah said the two reactions he has gotten from prospective guests is either a clear "no" or an intrigued "yes."
A few of those watching the trial run from the sidelines Thursday immediately asked if they could get in the water. Others didn't seem so keen on the idea.
For more information on the shark pool experience, call Coral World at 775-1555.
Guests must be 4 feet, 6 inches tall to participate.
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