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Baltimore's Aquarium: What a Dive!

For $295, you can swim with the fishes (in a good way) at the National Aquarium in Baltimore.
For $295, you can swim with the fishes (in a good way) at the National Aquarium in Baltimore. (By George Grall -- National Aquarium)
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By Curt Suplee
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, January 2, 2008

There might be just a moment of underwater buyer's remorse. Sure, you voluntarily signed up to dive in this shadowy pool full of stingrays and other assorted carnivores. And you know they're not dangerous, exactly. Still, the first time one of the big rays starts flapping straight at you like a diabolically possessed wrestling mat, you may wonder why you're here, 10 feet below the water's surface in the middle of the National Aquarium in Baltimore.

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But the sensation lasts only a second. And then you're back to marveling at these superbly graceful animals (who associate scuba divers like you with food and certainly seem to relish human contact) while occasionally waving at the aquarium visitors gawking behind the glass.

It's the subaqueous equivalent of hopping over the fence at the zoo to join the critters. And it happens once a month, when the National Aquarium allows a group of divers into two of its most popular exhibits: the 335,000-gallon Atlantic Coral Reef tank and Wings in the Water, a 260,000-gallon pool inhabited by sharks, a few dozen stingrays, several tarpons and an amiable sea turtle named Calypso.

The Saturday afternoon operation is run by Atlantic Edge, a scuba school and dive shop in Gaithersburg, and supervised by John Harman, the cheerful company co-founder and veteran instructor who made a big splash a few years back by getting married underwater in the Atlantic Coral Reef tank. He and Abbe Harman, his partner in total-immersion matrimony, have been volunteer divers at the National Aquarium for nearly two decades.

Their customers, who must be certified divers and at least 18 years old, bring their own wet suits, masks and fins. For $295, Atlantic Edge provides the rest, including sufficient air for two shallow half-hour dives. You'll need at least that much time to see the sights. There are more than 400 fish representing 50 species in the big oval reef exhibit, not counting Oscar the green moray eel.

To aquarium visitors on the dry side of the tank glass, the fish appear to glide by in magnificent, if tedious, serenity. To the bubbling mammals in the water, they can be much less passive. During a dive last summer, a mother triggerfish the size of an omelet pan lunged at divers to chase them away from her eggs. Abbe Harman recalls the time that a damselfish determinedly kept bumping a surprised diver in the rump until he finally cleared the area. And Oscar -- who like all morays prefers to stay hidden until the appropriate prey swims by -- has been known to make a foray into the human traffic.

Okay, it's not the Caribbean. The Atlantic coral exhibit is artificial (the aquarium calls it "an authentic fabricated reef"), albeit lovely and minutely detailed, and the light is a little odd -- more like what you'd see in a home fish tank. There's a peculiar smell to the water, which is not seawater but Baltimore city water that has been treated with the aquarium's special recipe of salts and minerals.

Also, the fish colors are slightly less vivid than they are in the wild. No one knows exactly why. The best guess, says an aquarium spokeswoman, is that when the animals' food is frozen to kill off bacteria and parasites, it also loses some vitamins. So, yes, the fish take supplements.

Of course, even humans can get pale in Wings in the Water, a.k.a. the ray tray. This open pool, surrounded by surface spectators as well as oglers at the underwater windows, contains 19 cownose rays and two bullnose eagle rays (both common in the mid-Atlantic region) as well as 14 Southern stingrays, a pelagic ray and a spiny butterfly ray.

You aren't allowed to initiate contact, and because gloves are required, you can't directly touch the rays' soft undersides, which feel like a muscular mushroom sprayed with olive oil. But you'll certainly get up close and personal. Even at Grand Cayman's fabled Stingray City -- where you're allowed to feed the rays handfuls of chopped-up squid -- you don't get as chummy with as many kinds of animals as you do in Baltimore.

And that's just the main act. Also in the ray tray is a seven-foot zebra shark known to the locals as Zoe. The zebras have spectacular tails (that's caudal fins for you anatomy geeks) as long as their bodies, which means that when they turn, part of the tail is still headed south while the rest of the animal is north. It seems that Zoe can't see very well, if at all. ("Imagine diving with a blind shark," John Harman says. "How cool is that?" As a matter of fact, it's about 75 degrees in the tank, so you'll want a fairly well-insulated wetsuit.)

And finally, there's Calypso, an amputee sea turtle the size of a beer keg who gets along nicely on three flippers. She's gregarious to a fault. Indeed, on the summer dive, she apparently became intrigued by the color of one diver's gear and kept giving him reptilian head-butts until he had rotated a full 360 degrees.

Judging from customer reactions, the quality of the experience depends in part on your dive history and personal preferences. One couple from Southern Maryland were unimpressed, but they had done the aquarium dive in Epcot's 6-million-gallon indoor ocean. On the other hand, a middle-aged Washington area woman recently back from St. Barts pronounced Baltimore's ray tray "absolutely awesome."

Most divers, including this one, find it fascinating. Especially compared with the rather narrow range of dive sites in the area. Besides, where else can you get tanked, make a spectacle of yourself and feel good about it the next day?

* The next Aquarium Diver programs are scheduled for Jan. 19, Feb. 16 and March 15. The cost is $295; participants must be 18 or older and certified divers. Info: 301-519-9283, http://www.atlanticedge.com.


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