By Diane Ako
Does anyone remember the old commercials for the Pacific Beach Hotel? Some jingle about it being "one fun place"? I don't remember the era- 70's? 80's? I keep having that in my mind as I think about a recent experience at the hotel's famed Oceanarium.
The Oceanarium is a three-story aquarium built in 1979. It holds 280,000 gallons of water, in which swim about 500 fish from more than 70 different species. If you've eaten at the restaurant of the same name, you know the hotel's team of divers feed the fish regularly, and sometimes hold signs up wishing customers happy birthday, happy anniversary, etc.
For decades, I've always thought it would be so incredibly cool to dive in that tank. So when Japan-based Marine Express Inc. started selling tickets to the public to do exactly that, I knew I had to get in on it.
Marine Express will take up to two people down for 15 minutes to snuba. That's a combination of snorkeling and SCUBA diving. You breathe through a regulator that's hooked up to oxygen floating around on a little white raft on the surface. You don't use a SCUBA air tank. You do not need lessons or certifications, though it might have helped that I'm NAUI certified, because it's basically the same idea.
Another benefit of diving in this tank, versus the great outdoors, is that you don't have to worry about currents and bad weather. There's plenty of tame fish plus two friendly sting rays (Small Boy and Dot), and they'll come up to you to nibble at lettuce that the guide gives you before you go down.
I decided to take my cousin's son, Donovan, for his birthday present. He just turned nine, though the minimum age for a dive is eight years old. They'll allow children ages four to seven to snorkel at the surface of the water, but it's still the same price.
Marine Express started the snuba dives in January, and the guides are PADI certified as well as CPR certified. They can take up to two dozen customers a day. "Most people are nervous, but by the end of the dive, they come out smiling," says Kentaro Abiko, general manager of Marine Express and our guide today. The most common problem he sees is people not being able to pop their ears from the pressure.
We showed up a half hour before our dive, so that we could watch a brief instructional DVD and get suited up. The company provides a short wetsuit, booties, gloves, mask, weight belts, fish food, and if you so desire, crazy hats to wear in the water. We so desired. I am the crab, Donovan is the fish, our guide - Kentaro - is the shell. Though I really think his shell looks more like a fro-yo swirl, or Carmen Miranda-meets-SeaWorld.
Then, we jumped into the water and slowly sank 20 feet to the bottom. The water is not cold, and it is actually sea water from right outside. To keep the water clean and clear, there is a pump leading to the ocean that constantly cycles in fresh ocean water.
Fish immediately came pecking at me. I had four lettuce leaves tucked into the regulator strap, and they fearlessly started nibbling away. So cool.
As I continued drifting downward, I passed the two rays. I reached out and touched one. He slithered by like Samuel L. Jackson in Shaft.
Our families had come to watch (and eat), so I immediately went to the window to see where they were. Everyone starting looking and pointing. If you don't know, the Oceanarium Restaurant has a hugely popular Friday lunch buffet special for seniors, so everyone looks alike. I had to look very hard to figure out which table of local Chinese retirees was my table. Likewise, some of them did not recognize me with the crab on my head and later said they thought I was just a very friendly diver.
After I fed the fish and looked for my family, I decided to swim around the tank. I inspected the back wall and swam through the bubbles because that has always looked like fun. I made my way from one end of the tank to the other to enjoy the view from the inside.
At some point, Donovan finally came down. Kentaro is really good with kids and helped Donovan get over his initial butterflies, and his confusion about how to clear his ears from the pressure. Kentaro took our photos in the water and let us write little messages to our friends outside on his Etch-A-Sketch board.
More smiling and waving to the people outside. I found Olivia. I read her lips as she called my name. She blew me a kiss. I caught it.
And then we were done. We floated to the top, got out, and rinsed off in the showers in the locker room. (The company also provides towels.) Then we went downstairs to have lunch. Donovan said he loved it. Birthday accomplished!
I've eaten at the Oceanarium Restaurant before. I always point out the sting rays to Olivia. This time, I could look at it and say I've been in there- and my, was it fun!
To make reservations, call Marine Express, Inc. at (808) 921-6190.
Cost: $75 for a half hour dive, $30 for a CD of underwater photos that the guide takes of you.
Kamaaina and hotel guest discount: you get the CD free.
Also reach me via DianeAko.com