Swimming with sharks: 'This is not your average adventure'

Catch the entire adventure from "Becoming a Certified Scuba Diver" to "Swimming with Seven Gill Sharks" on Wednesday and Thursday, March 28 & 29, on KVAL News.

NEWPORT, Ore. - Extreme Katie faced the edge of adrenaline for KVAL News in the air and on land, but this might be her most extreme adventure yet: swimming with sharks without a cage at the Oregon Coast Aquarium in Newport.

It's all a part of the aquarium's guest diving program.

For years, only teams of highly trained and skilled volunteer scuba divers were allowed inside the underwater exhibits.

Trained and certified divers can now experience the open sea inside the "Passages of the Deep," a three-part exhibit constructed in 2000 from the home of world-renowned killer whale Keiko of "Free Willy" fame lived before being released in 1999.

Nearly 150 volunteers maintain the health of the exhibit by "maintaining the water quality through vacuuming, through windows, cleaning the acrylic so that people going through the aquarium can see," said Diana Hollingshead, a veteran 10+ years of volunteering at the aquarium.

Now, guests are invited to dive inside the aquarium, purchasing a dive package, without committing to becoming a volunteer.

"It's really exciting because we have been able to share these animals with our visitors in a dry settling but to now be able to actually put some of them in the water and guide them along and get those up-close encounters is just going to be fascinating," said Vallorie Hodges a Dive Safety Officer for the Oregon Coast Aquarium.

"We want to share this amazing environment with as many people as we can so they learn to appreciate and help conserve the natural environment," said Hodges.

The aquarium has already started a few trial runs before the program begins this Spring.

Katie Boer from KVAL News tried the dive for herself with some of the world's most fascinating and frightening creatures inside the nearly 800,000 gallon "Open Sea" exhibit, home to some 190 sharks and 13 California Bat Rays.

"The thrill of getting in the water and having these animals right next to you ... you know people that don't get this opportunity," said Hodges. "Our guest diving program is going to be I think a spectacular success. I think it will draw people not just from our region, but from all over the country."

So how close will could a reporter get to these creatures?

"You know, it's kind of up to them," said Hodges. "But probably within touching distance."

Sound like a rush? Just remember sharks can sense an elevated heart rate - and recognize fear.

"This is not your average adventure," said Hodges. "You're going to be in and environment that your body has tried for many years to avoid being in. You're going to be breathing under the water and you're going to be right up close and personal."

"You're going to be in there space."

Before Boer was able to step foot inside these 26' deep tanks, she had to go through hours of training, course work, and pool sessions at Eugene Skin Divers to becoming a 'PADI Open Water Diver'. Because more so than the animals she'll be diving with, her biggest risk is not learning how to dive correctly.

Even with training--scuba divers face dangers like ruptured lungs, ear problems, nitrogen narcosis and the Benz--according to the scuba shops co-owner Diana Hollingshead.

"Its a relatively safe sport, providing you follow the rules," said Hollingshead.

Hollingshead and her husband Michael, who both run the Eugene dive shop, have been volunteers at the aquarium for over a decade. Getting inside the aquarium exhibits never gets old.

"It's is very exciting," said Diana. "Because you're in a controlled environment. You have to remind your self, 'Wow, these are wild creatures that are in a controled environment, but we have no control over them."