Shark Dive Instructor James and the sharks Melbourne Aquarium
James and 'Leo' the leopard shark. Photo courtesy of James Hawes

Today we are chatting to James Hawes (UK) who is currently working in Melbourne, Australia.

What is your job title?

I am a “SDX Instructor” (shark dive xtreme instructor) at the Sea Life Melbourne Aquarium.

What do you do as a Shark Dive instructor?

I work in the Shark diving department. I teach people the basics of scuba diving; how to clear a mask underwater, and how to clear and recover a regulator. I then take them into the water with sharks and other animals.

james hawes - Shark Dive Extreme Instructor
Photo courtesy of James Hawes

How did you get into this role?

I initially applied for a different job in the aquarium which got the ball rolling. I didn’t actually know they ran a shark dive in the aquarium until one day I was walking through the tunnels and saw people in the tank. After that, it was just a case of tracking the right people down in the building and making myself known and making friends with the shark team. They already knew I was an instructor so when a position came available I applied for the role.

What is your scuba diving history?

I started diving in 2012 completing my open water in Malta; beautiful diving and a great instructor got me hooked. I then went onto complete a degree in Marine and Natural History Photography (a bit of a mouthful) in Falmouth in the UK. In that course, I did a lot of scuba diving, mostly in the cold cold waters around Cornwall. After that, I wanted to get into diving a bit more professionally so I moved to Koh Tao, Thailand in 2016 and worked my way up to instructor level. When I was there I also did a lot of diving and just generally had a great time.

Shark Dive Instructor diving with his buddy at the Melbourne Aquarium
Photo courtesy of James Hawes.

What are the basic requirements for this job?

The basic professional requirements to be a Shark dive instructor is to be a Diving Instructor. This can be through any diving agency; PADI, SSI, STI, RAID, etc. It doesn’t matter which agency as long as you are in active teaching status. In this job having a fair bit of experience in doing intro dives (Try Dives or Discover Scuba Dives) and teaching brand new divers helps a lot.

Learning how to dive with sharks
Photo courtesy of James Hawes.

What does a typical day look like?

A normal day starts at around 8:30 am where we will set up our dive area and equipment. Then we would collect our lucky divers for our first two dives (up to 8 people). We would give them a briefing and get 4 divers in the water and onto a platform. This is where we teach and practice basic skills before taking the students down for their shark dive. This gets repeated for the second dive and then we have a lunch break and then the afternoon we have another 8 divers. We are generally quite busy!

Enjoying this Q&A? Read more stories and interviews with divers at Down to Scuba.

What is the water temperature?

It is 23°C in the shark tank so it is quite cold. We are in the tank for 2 hours at a time so we use gloves, thermals, a hood, and 5mm wetsuits. We use this as exposure protection and also as protection against the animals.

Photo courtesy of James Hawes.

How safe is this job?

Instructors and students will wear black colored wetsuits, with no bright colors or very minimal colors. This is for the sharks as they can be attracted to bright colors and patterns.

Whenever we go in the water there is a staff member in the tunnel and a staff member at the surface. Normally it is the people that cause us the most problems (haha) because sharks and other animals are what we call ‘passive-reactive.’

This means they do not react for no reason or lash out unless they are provoked, hungry or stressed. There have been a few times we’ve had to get out of the water because the sharks or other animals have been being weird. You can tell when their body position and language changes. They might bump into you, and swim super quickly. The speartooth sharks are basically bull sharks and sometimes when the water quality changes they react to it and swim very quickly.

What is the most rewarding experience so far?

I would say helping people overcome real fear and helping them to relax and really enjoy themselves. They are so grateful afterward.

Photo courtesy of James Hawes.

Where is your favorite place to dive?

During my time on Koh Tao in Thailand, I would love diving at Sail Rock, which is rated as the Best Dive Site in the Gulf of Thailand. There are schools of barracudas, massive queenfish, trevallies, and the chance to see a whale shark! I also love diving Elphinstone reef, a big wall reef off Egypt in the Red Sea.

What is your favourite marine animal?

A whale shark!

What is the funniest thing you have seen during this job?

I think a lot of the animals are responsible for making us laugh, doing silly or unusual things or just being downright adorable.

Shark Dive Instructor in a promotional social media post for the Melbourne Aquarium
James in the wedding dress. Photo courtesy of James Hawes.

What marine life do you work with?

I work in the oceanarium (tank 13 if you want to know) so its meant to replicate a tropical ocean environment. The sharks we have are a grey nurse, 3 speartooth, 1 sandbar whaler, 3 tawny nurse sharks, 1 leopard (technically 2), 2 largetooth sawfish, a grey reef, a black tip and heaps of bamboo sharks.

We also have 6 smooth stingrays, 5 eagle rays, 2 spotted eagles, 1 black ray and 3 whip rays. There are lots of different animals with different personalities and behaviors.

Which animal is your favorite?

Easy. Leo is our leopard shark and he is very affectionate and friendly. Imagine a golden retriever puppy in the body of a shark. That’s Leo.

What do the animals eat?

Not people thankfully. All the animals in the tank have different nutritional needs so feeding them can sometimes be a challenge. Generally, we feed them a range of large/small fish, squid, and prawns. Normally they eat around 30-50kg of food a day depending on what the feeding schedule is.

What is the best and worst thing about your job?

The best thing is the team that I work with…and the animals. We also get to experience some interesting situations; such as taking the band Aqua (who sang ‘Barbie Girl’) for their shark dive experience!

The worst this about working here is probably not seeing the sun for the whole day as we work underground. This makes it hard to maintain that sun-kissed glow.

Shark Dive Instructor James teaching the band Aqua how to scuba dive
James teaching ‘Aqua’ basic scuba diving skills. Photo courtesy of James Hawes.

How do aquariums help conservation efforts?

I think at a wider scale aquariums have the ability to educate people, this is their main purpose. With that, it actually makes the general public much more aware of how they can personally help the oceans, even in small easy ways. Also in more direct ways of conservation, aquariums have resources at their disposal for helping injured, sick or rehabilitated animals get better. e.g access to marine vets and medication.

How do you think this experience benefits the animals

Whenever we enter the water with customers from the get-go we are completely in their world. When we are in the tank we treat the animals with respect and keep our distance (as best we can). Even though many of them are much bigger and stronger than us they really don’t care about our presence in the water. I think if the animals really didn’t want us in the water we would be able to tell from our missing fingers.

How do you think this experience benefits people?

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past 30 years you must have some idea that our oceans aren’t doing too great. I think if you go to an aquarium to see these beautiful animals on display and not feel moved, then you must be a robot! After nearly every dive people say it was amazing how close the sharks came and how relaxed and calm they were. They really aren’t mindless predators!

The experience also creates an interest in people to continue diving which as instructors makes us feel pretty good. I think the more people who dive and are able to see these animals in the aquarium, the more people will want to see the animals in their natural environment. This then leads to people wanting to protect and conserve the oceans and the animals that they’ve seen.

Shark Dive Instructor in the aquarium tank teaching new divers
Photo courtesy of James Hawes.

To learn more about the Shark Dive Xtreme Experience, head over to the Melbourne Aquarium for more information.

Enjoying this Q&A? Read more stories and interviews with divers at Down to Scuba.

Emma was terrified of the ocean but dove into her Open Water 7 years ago and hasn't looked back since! She worked as an underwater videographer for several years and is now a PADI Master Scuba Diver Trainer. She currently runs a dive shop on the island of Koh Tao in Thailand and is the founder of Down To Scuba.

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