What Coloradans are Doing to Save the Sharks

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At a mile above sea level, Denver’s Downtown Aquarium plays host to the Shipwreck shark tank exhibit: four species of shark, three 12-foot prehistoric looking sawfish, and an abundance of green sea turtles among many other fish make their home in this self-contained 400,000 gallon ecosystem. And guess what? You can jump in the tank with them.

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The Downtown Aquarium reopened in July of 2005 after extensive renovation and soon after partnered with A-1 Scuba & Travel, an aquatics center in Littleton that’s been around since 1959, to move their education mission out from behind the glass of the aquarium tanks. The thriving A-1 dive programming at the Downtown Aquarium includes more than nine different snorkeling and diving adventures that pair environmental education with diving adventures. “Many of our guests don’t have the privilege of ever having seen the ocean,” explains Shane Taylor, General Manager of A-1 Scuba & Travel and the Downtown Aquarium’s diving program Director. “That’s one of the things I love most about what I get to do: we help educate people about the oceanic environment, introduce them to some of the creatures that live there, and show them that our efforts here in Colorado can also affect the oceans that seem so far away.”

Downtown Aquarium, Denver, Colorado. Photo Credit: Katie Rae Spell - OutThere Colorado
Shane and Kym from A-1 Scuba & Travel, Denver’s Downtown Aquarium staff, and OutThere Colorado pose for a photo at the top of the exhibits before Charles and Sophie get suited up to dive into the shark tank. Photo Credit: Katie Rae Spell.
Downtown Aquarium, Denver, Colorado, Photo Credit: Katie Rae Spell - OutThere Colorado
Kym, PADI & OWSI Instructor and Downtown Aquarium guide, helps me adjust my goggles before jumping into the shark exhibit. Denver, Colorado. Photo Credit: Katie Rae Spell.

The “Dive with the Sharks” adventure (for certified divers only) in the Shipwreck Exhibit not only gives guests the thrill of swimming with the massive prehistoric creatures, it’s also the perfect opportunity for the A-1 team to share one of the missions they feel most passionate about, “the importance of protecting our sharks and keeping the oceans balanced”.

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Downtown Aquarium, Denver, Colorado. Photo Credit: Katie Rae Spell - OutThere Colorado
Green sea turtles are the largest of the hardshell sea turtles, growing up to five feet in length and weighing up to 700 pounds. Photo Credit: Katie Rae Spell.

A 2013 statistical report compiled by researchers at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada estimates that a minimum of 100 million sharks are killed annually, mostly as a result of illegal shark finning for use in a soup delicacy prized in some parts of Asia. This is a huge problem, Taylor explains, because not only do sharks reproduce at a fairly slow rate, they also provide a huge service to an ocean’s ecosystem: Sharks eat sick and diseased fish, thereby maintaining the health of reefs and surrounding waters.

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Shipwreck Exhibit at the Downtown Aquarium in Denver, Colorado. Photo Credit: Katie Rae Spell.
Shipwreck Exhibit at the Downtown Aquarium in Denver, Colorado. Photo Credit: Katie Rae Spell.
Downtown Aquarium, Denver, Colorado. Photo Credit: Katie Rae Spell - OutThere Colorado
When they told me that the sharks hadn’t been fed yet that day, I got a little nervous. Downtown Aquarium, Denver, Colorado. Photo Credit: Katie Rae Spell.

Conservation efforts are currently focused on tagging sharks with GPS trackers to determine migration patterns. If researchers can compile these migration maps, they’ll be able to pinpoint mating grounds and designate those waters as protected from commercial fishing.

Downtown Aquarium, Denver, Colorado. Photo Credit: Katie Rae Spell - OutThere Colorado
Charles and I slowly descend to the bottom of the Shipwreck Exhibit at the Downtown Aquarium. Denver, Colorado. Photo Credit: Katie Rae Spell.

Turns out that Coloradans love scuba diving almost as much as they love mountain biking and skiing: A 2012 report shows that Colorado ranks in the top six for states with the most certified scuba divers. And A-1 has found a way to contribute to shark conservation efforts by capitalizing on Colorado’s scuba diving passion. “When our divers explore the Downtown Aquarium’s shark tank with us, they generally find shark teeth in the sand because sharks constantly lose teeth. It’s an awesome souvenir for the divers to take some of these teeth home, and we ask them in return to leave behind something for shark research programs”. This effort has raised thousands of dollars in the past 11 years for shark research and tagging programs.

For more information about A-1’s diving programs at the Downtown Aquarium, visit divedowntown.com.

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