It only takes guests a few minutes in the water before they realize the zebra sharks are practically water puppies, poking their face above the water to search for food and nuzzling against legs in the search for snacks.

“You can feel the tension near the beginning, and at the end, they’re hanging out,” said Mark Murray, the senior saltwater aquarist at the Loveland Living Planet Aquarium.

Visitors now have the chance to get into the water with the aquarium’s male zebra shark as part of the aquarium’s newest animal encounter.

The shark encounter saw its first paid customer on Tuesday following months of pilots.

The zebra shark is docile and gently swims around guests wearing waders standing on the diver’s platform in the 300,000-gallon shark habitat. While in the water, Murray speaks to guests about the shark, its training and conservation. The shark is fine with being touched — although his skin is rougher than guests expect.

“You can tell right off the bat he’s not what most people think of as a shark,” Murray said.

A zebra shark was chosen for the experience because the shark doesn’t have to swim in order to breathe and can move around and rest, Murray said.

The more guests learn about zebra sharks, the more comfortable they are around it. Murray said guests often start the encounter off with their hands above the water and close to them, and then slowly get comfortable enough to touch the shark.

“It’s an experience that sticks with them for life,” Murray said.

The shark encounters began this week, just in time for Shark Week, which begins on July 28.

It gives the aquarium the chance to talk to visitors about how people in a landlocked state like Utah can help with shark conservation efforts. The aquarium partners with the Monterey Bay Aquarium to promote the Seafood Watch app, which alerts users about which seafood is sustainably sourced.

The aquarium typically sees more visitors in July, and Shark Week brings its own breed.

“We do get more shark enthusiasts during Shark Week,” said Caroline Ralston, the aquarium’s senior director of marketing and communications.

The aquarium plans to celebrate the week with games, photo ops and giveaways.

The aquarium also offers encounters with stingrays and penguins.

The aquarium’s zebra shark is trained, swims slowly and is between 8 and 10 years old.

Ralston said spending time with the shark helps break down misconceptions people have about the creatures.

“I think culture has conditioned us to fear certain predators, and it’s not the correct experience for (all) sharks,” Ralston said.

The shark encounters are available at 12:30 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Reservations can be made through June 2020 at http://thelivingplanet.com/animalencounters.

Braley Dodson covers health and education for the Daily Herald.

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