Unlike the 4,000 people a year who decide to undertake Manly Sea Life Aquarium’s Shark Dive Extreme challenge – I am not a lover of water. Nor have I ever had any aspirations to get up close and personal with megafauna such as sharks or stingrays.
In fact, I have thalassophobia: an intense and irrational fear of both the ocean and its weird and wonderful inhabitants.
So when Merlin Event’s senior operations manager, Ashley Hayes, challenged the Spice girls to a team building shark dive experience earlier on this month, you can only imagine how I was feeling. Not good. In fact, I was down right terrified.
Up until this point, I had spent the vast majority of my life happily avoiding the water. Why get over your fear when you can just avoid it, right?
But the fear had led to many summers beached on shore alone; as well as an embarrassing incident in the Cook Islands where I awkwardly waddled out of the water – defeated – in massive flippers, after attempting to snorkel for just 20 seconds. Yes. I am that fearful.
My colleagues on the other hand accepted the challenge immediately. They were practically jumping for joy. “You don’t have to do it Bon,” my colleague said reassuringly. “But it’ll be so much fun and you’ll be so proud of yourself afterwards.”
The girls – who at this point I had known but a few weeks – became a sounding board for my fears and concerns. And while I became the butt of a few ‘good natured’ jokes (I’m looking at you Ms Charlotte Marshall), overall I felt an immense amount of support from my new team in the lead up.
Tentatively, I agreed. But only to undertake the dive training in the pool (which was already a huge step forward for me). I wasn’t sure if I was ready to surround myself with the ocean’s apex predator just yet.
When the day finally arrived, I was a nervous mess. But upon meeting our dive instructors Fletch and Michelle, I began to open up a little bit more to the idea. “Grey nurse sharks are the labradors of the sea,” Fletch proclaimed confidently. “They’re harmless.”
Grey Nurse Sharks, he explained, were once plentiful along the coastlines of Australia. However due to their frightening appearance, the sharks were mislabelled in the 1950s as “man eaters”, and were subsequently culled by humans near extinction.
In reality, their jagged teeth are only good for capturing slippery fish and are no threat to humans, Fletch promised.
Today, only an estimated 1,500 grey nurse sharks are thought to be left on the east coast. And the Department of Environment and Energy now recognises the species as “critically endangered”.
We were then educated on Manly Sea Life Sanctuary’s breed, rescue and protect program before being whisked away for a safety briefing and a wetsuit fitting.
The amazing thing about Manly Sea Life’s Shark Dive Extreme challenge is that guests do not need to have prior diving experience, as your instructor will teach you all you need to know to enjoy the adrenaline rush on the day.
As I was easily the most nervous member of the group, the assisting instructor Michelle pulled me aside in the training pool to give me a one-on-one lesson.
“You just have to get over the mental barrier of breathing underwater and then you’ll be fine,” she assured me.
Michelle was a calming presence underwater; like a masterful yogi teaching meditation to a new student.
Little by little, the technique clicked and I found myself breathing comfortably underwater.
Before I could object, Michelle led me into the second tank with the others; where I found myself surrounded by colourful fish, wobbegongs and Port Jackson sharks. As I glanced above, a massive stingray – the width of a queen sized bed – floated gracefully above me.
I was shocked. Was I really under water right now? Was this actually happening?
Fletch and Michelle guided the crew towards Shark Harbour, the underwater home and breeding ground of the sanctuary’s colony of Grey Nurse Sharks. And before long, our small group was surrounded by them.
While we were given the firm word during the safety briefing that we were not to touch the sharks, it was almost hard not to consider reaching out for a quick stroke. Almost.
As we watched the gentle creatures swimming above us, I couldn’t help but feel so grateful that I had placed my trust into the Sanctuary’s very capable hands. Because not only had I gotten over my greatest fear, but I had done so with my team.
And if you can face a tank filled with sharks with your team, is there anything you can’t do?
Keen to experience Shark Dive Xtreme for yourself? Merlin Events has partnered with SpiceNews to give one lucky corporate group of four the chance to get up close and personal with the sanctuary’s resident sharks. Just flick an email to firstname.lastname@example.org and explain in 25 words or less why your team deserves the prize. The lucky winner will be notified by email by 23 June.