Sharks to the right of me. Sharks to the left of me. Sharks all around me. It’s a situation in which I never expected to find myself, but there I was, submerged in the water and clicking away with the Go-Pro that is part of the shark dive experience package.
Diving with the sharks is just one of several highly immersive experiences offered by the Wonders of Wildlife National Museum and Aquarium in Springfield.
This mega attraction, which opened in September 2017, keeps adding more features to its already substantial portfolio. Diving with sharks and waddling with penguins are two of the most recent additions to the aquarium experience.
Diving With Sharks
Three other eager but slightly nervous divers and I met at the designated time at the Aquarium Great Oceans Hall lobby and headed behind the scenes to prepare for our Out-to-Sea Shark Dive adventure.
All you need to bring is your bathing suit and some toiletries for a shower after the dive. The aquarium provides the wetsuit, a Go-Pro Hero6 camera for each diver, and towels for drying off afterward.
We emerge from the dressing room looking a bit unsure, but our guides, who are certified safety divers, soothe our concerns as they go over the safety rules, hand signals and what we should expect. We sign the waivers, and suddenly it’s time.
In single file, we walk down a metal ramp to a cage suspended in the 200,000-gallon saltwater shark tank, then descend a ladder until we reach shoulder level in the water. The guides position the SeaTrek helmets over our heads and instruct us to slowly submerge ourselves, getting the feel of the helmets and realizing how easy it is to breathe. The state-of-the-art air helmets allow us to comfortably and safely submerge ourselves without diver certification.
Once we are oriented, we are free to move around in the cage, turning to look all around us, and clicking photos nonstop. A certified safety diver is with us the entire time. The 15 to 20 minutes in the water passes quickly.
The diver cage is submerged in about seven feet of water on the back side of the shark tank, which is home to brown sharks, sand tiger sharks, Atlantic Goliath groupers, barracuda and dozens of colorful reef fish.
Brown sharks are one of the largest coastal sharks in the world, and sand tiger sharks are the only shark species known to come to the surface for air. An Atlantic Goliath grouper can weigh up to 800 pounds; they are the largest fish at the WOW Aquarium.
It is mesmerizing to watch the sharks and other fish as they circle the cage, sometimes coming right up alongside. Be sure to keep your hands and fingers inside!
Some of the dives occur during feeding times, giving the participants a chance to watch the feeding frenzy from up close and personal.
If your family or friends are looking in from the spectator side of the tank, they can see you in the cage and visually share your experience.
There are age restrictions and health considerations for participation for the SeaTrek Shark Dive experience; full details are on the website, www.wondersofwildlife.org/sharkdive. Participants must be at least 10 years old.
All in all, you should allow about 1 1/2 hours for the shark experience. Prices begin at $35 per person for the shark dive and $60 per person for the feeding frenzy.
When you’ve changed back into your clothes and are ready to return to the aquarium, you receive some wonderful mementoes of your experience: a commemorative “I Survived the Shark Dive” T-shirt, an 8- by 6-inch souvenir photo, and a flash drive with the photos and videos you took with the Go-Pro while under water.
The WOW Aquarium is sort of like having an ocean right here in the Ozarks, and it is the only place in the Midwest where you can swim with sharks. That’s a pretty cool way to combat any post-holiday blues.
If sharks aren’t your thing, how about penguins? A new immersive program at the WOW Museum and Aquarium is Chill Out With Penguins, during which you’ll go inside the Penguin Cove habitat and get face-to-feather with a colony of Gentoo penguins.
Located in the Polar Expedition region of the Wildlife Galleries, the all-new Penguin Encounter takes you to the southernmost continent of Antarctica. You’ll experience the temperature, the sights and the smells of the habitat while learning about Gentoo penguins, their diet, social behavior and ability to survive in extreme conditions.
Gentoo penguins live in colonies and often mate for life. Native to Antarctica, Gentoos are well adapted to a frozen environment.
The flightless birds are a crowd pleaser with their awkward waddle and artful dives. Their wings serve as fins that enable them to “fly” gracefully under water, reaching speeds of 22 miles per hour and depths of more than 600 feet.
One of 17 different penguin species on the planet, Gentoos can grow to 30 inches in height and about 12 pounds in weight. They have a pink coloration under their wings.
The Penguin Encounter lasts about 45 minutes total, with about 15 minutes inside the 43-degree habitat, so be sure to dress warmly. Please note that touching or feeding the penguins is not permitted, for their safety and yours.
Participants receive an 8- by 6-inch photo of the experience and a commemorative “I Chilled Out With the Penguins” T-shirt. Pricing begins at $30 per person.
For full information, visit www.wondersofwildlife.org/penguins.
Not Just Sharks, Penguins
More than 40 national conservation organizations partnered with Johnny Morris, founder of Bass Pro Shops, and Wonders of Wildlife to create what is considered the world’s foremost collection of conservation exhibits right here in the heartland of the country. Just a three-hour drive from Washington, and you’ll be at “America’s Conservation Capital” in Springfield.
The numbers tell the story. The Wonders of Wildlife Museum and Aquarium include 350,000 square feet of exhibits, 1.5 million gallons of freshwater and saltwater habitats, 1.5 miles of immersive trails and 35,000 live fish, mammals, reptiles, amphibians and birds.
USA Today readers named it “America’s Best New Attraction” for 2017 and “America’s Best Aquarium” for 2018. It’s the largest attraction of its kind in the world, and took more than 10 years to create.
While you’re there, you might as well pop into Bass Pro Shops National Headquarters Store, which is next door to the museum and aquarium. The store is the No. 1 tourist destination in the state, drawing 4 million visitors each year.
Between the store, the museum and the aquarium, there is more than enough to fill a winter weekend getaway and beat the post-holiday doldrums.