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Dive with sharks in Missouri? Soon you can at WOW aquarium

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By Wes Johnson, USA TODAY

The steady hiss of air flowing into my helmet made it easy to focus on what we were after — a close encounter underwater with sharks just a few feet away.

The big sand tiger sharks and fast-swimming brown sharks chomped fish that were lowered into the water at the end of long poles. Massive goliath groupers joined the feeding frenzy to inhale their share.

On Tuesday, four of us donned wetsuits and Sea TREK diving helmets to experience what will soon be available to the public: diving in a shark cage inside the Wonders of Wildlife aquarium's huge shark tank.

"I was shaking a lot," said Luke Lygrisese, 10, son of KY3's Maria Neider, who joined a News-Leader reporter and photographer in trying the Out To Sea Shark Dive.

Luke's most memorable part?

"I think it was putting the helmet on and getting ready to go in the water," he said. "It was one of the best times of my life!"

By mid-June, Wonders of Wildlife National Museum and Aquarium will open the Out To Sea Shark Dive experience to the public. The cost will be $130 per person, or $155 per person during a shark feeding dive.

WOW spokeswoman Shelby Stephenson said as far as she knows, WOW is the only venue in Missouri that lets visitors go underwater to see sharks and other sea creatures up close.

WOW provides a wetsuit and rubber booties and a changing room next to the shark tank, with a warm shower afterward. All you need to bring is a swimsuit.

After a short safety video — "Keep your hands and feet inside the cage" is high on the list — we stepped one by one to a sloping platform where an attendant lowered the 75-pound Sea TREK helmets onto our shoulders.

Once underwater, the helmet's buoyancy lightened its weight to 15 pounds, just enough to keep it comfortably in place. The helmet remains attached to a topside air hose.

We stepped to the bottom of the shark cage, with a couple of feet of water above our heads. The cage remains stationary while sharks, barracudas and colorful reef fish swim in front, below and behind the cage.

A safety diver stayed with us the entire time, using hand signals to make sure we were all OK and comfortable.

I asked safety diver Bethany Roweton if a shark could possibly leap into the cage during a feeding frenzy. She said it's a scenario they've considered, but the shark cage bars rise well above the surface, making it very unlikely that could happen.

For 20 minutes, we watched the sea creatures devour their fish snacks and glide through the crystal clear salt water. The largest goliath grouper seemed interested in some of us, swimming next to the cage to view us with eyes the size of ping-pong balls.

Stephenson said the Out To Sea Shark Dive will be available only through online reservations at the WOW website. WOW members get a significant price break, to $90, or $115 for the feeding frenzy dive.

 According to WOW, participants also will get a combo ticket to both the aquarium and museum, a commemorative T-shirt, underwater camera to take your own photos and a souvenir flash drive with photos from the dive.

Participants need to be at least 10 years old and be able to navigate stairs, ramps and ladders without assistance. No diver certification is needed, and up to four divers at a time can experience the shark cage.

The entire experience lasts an hour and a half, according to WOW.

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Travel - U.S. Daily News: Dive with sharks in Missouri? Soon you can at WOW aquarium
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