- Associated Press - Friday, August 21, 2015

LAS VEGAS (AP) - Surrounded by a colorful collection of marine life, more than 30 sharks glide through the skeletal hull of a faux shipwreck in Mandalay Bay’s Shark Reef Aquarium.

They’re the stars of the attraction, drawing a steady stream of visitors who watch them from behind the glass of the aquarium’s 1.3 million-gallon tank.

But for qualified visitors, there’s a chance to get even closer to the predators. The aquarium’s Dive with Sharks program offers certified divers an opportunity to immerse themselves in the tank for a guided tour.

Who leads those dives? And who keeps the sharks and other sea creatures healthy and well-fed? Here’s a beyond-the-glass introduction to the aquarium’s staff of divers.

RICHARD KANTHACK, 62, DIVER

A native Californian, Kanthack has been in Las Vegas since 1992.

Previously employed as a maintenance engineer, he had been a diver for 10-plus years as a hobby until coming to Shark Reef simply because “(diving) is what I love to do.”

Kanthack lists annual “shark catches” as some of his more memorable experiences. To give sharks a yearly physical, divers use a piece of equipment that Kanthack compares to “a big Ziploc bag.”

“You sit there and kind of guide the shark into it, and when they get into it you pull them up, zip it up, and take it over to the isolation tank,” he said.

There’s no danger of being eaten or attacked by the sharks, as “sharks are opportunistic feeders,” he said.

“We’re not on their menu,” he said.

Kanthack likes the aquarium’s whitetip sharks because a diver can casually swim closely next to them. His least favorite animal remains a fish that, despite being less than a foot long, left him with a cut that required 10 stitches to close.

“I spooked him and he flipped his tail,” Kanthack said.

JACK JEWELL, 57, SHARK REEF GENERAL CURATOR AND DIVER

A Texas transplant, Jewell worked in aquariums in the Bay Area and has been at Shark Reef since it opened in 2000. One of his most enduring memories came when the attraction launched.

“We literally moved all of the animals from a (holding) building to here,” Jewell said, “so we’re catching sharks day after day, transporting them over here, and then placing them on exhibit. That was a lot of days of continuously hands-on shark experiences.”

Sounds scary, perhaps, but Jewell says it’s a misconception that sharks eat people, because humans are simply not on a shark’s diet. That said, the animals “should always be treated with the (utmost) respect,” Jewell said.

“We don’t have any situations in which (the sharks) are directly threatening to us,” he said. “However, we do have to directly engage them for yearly physicals, and those are certainly very intense encounters.”

In his free time, Jewell dives and dives some more. If he weren’t working at Shark Reef, Jewell said he would either be “working at a facility of similar caliber, or working as a dive safety officer in a big aquarium.”

RYAN ACENEDO, 44, DIVER

The only native Las Vegan on the diving team, Acenedo has been in the valley on and off for 44 years and describes himself as “not a desk guy.”

A background in security and landscaping led Acenedo to enjoy the physical labor and looking to do more things that piqued his interest, like scuba diving.

“I got certified a while (ago), and I figured, well, I’d had enough of jobs that I hated doing so I thought I’d try doing something I liked,” and said.

That thought led him to the Shark Reef. Acenedo’s most memorable experience with a fish was getting “knocked in the head by a humphead wrasse - a big fish with a hump on its head - trying to catch him to do a physical.” The fish broke out of a net and hit Acenedo in the head, giving him a hefty lump and bruise on his forehead.

When he’s not working, Acenedo dives, hikes, and explores the desert. Aside from having to put on cold wetsuits, cleaning feces, uneaten food and other gunk from the skimmer screens in the tanks is the grossest part of his job.

The best part is experiencing the rich variety of sea life in the aquarium.

“Not many people can say they do this for a living,” Acenedo said. “The animals we dive with in this display, you’ll never get a chance to do that in the wild because they don’t live together in the wild. It’s a pretty cool thing.”

Acenedo said he didn’t have a favorite or least favorite shark.

“I look at it like this: If I haven’t dived with that type of animal, I want to dive with it and see what it does. I just enjoy getting in the water with them and learning what I can learn.”

GRAYSON CALDWELL, 25, DIVER

Caldwell has been diving since he was in high school in his home state of North Carolina and has only been in Las Vegas for a year and a half. Despising his real estate office job and inspired by his parents, both former amateur divers, Caldwell pursued his dive master training in Honduras. After a short stint as a bar porter on the Strip, Caldwell found Shark Reef.

He said he hadn’t experienced any particularly memorable or scary moments in the tank, but that “every now and then, they get really close (to you). You’re not really in any danger, but when they do get close, there’s a little adrenaline rush.”

One part of the job he holds dear is “seeing the excitement on the kids in the tunnel,” he said. “The animals are great, but they’re a very, very close second to seeing kids light up, waving at us. That makes it worthwhile coming into work.”

ERNESTO DIEGUEZ, 25, DIVER

Another native Californian, Dieguez grew up in Las Vegas and is a newcomer to Shark Reef.

“Everytime I get in there it’s always new, there’s always something fun,” he said. “Dangerous? No. I think the worst bite I’ve ever gotten was from a sergeant major fish, which is a tiny fish (a couple inches big). It was just a nibble.”

Dieguez describes them as drastically different from their fearsome reputation.

“Sharks are like someone else’s really big dog,” he said. “They can be fun to be around, but you still need to respect them.”

___

Information from: Las Vegas Sun, https://www.lasvegassun.com


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