While underwater, don't hold your breath.
That sounds counterintuitive to me, but it was an important lesson to learn before experiencing SeaVenture, a below-the-surface experience with the fishes at Discovery Cove.
The dive debuted this summer with the Grand Reef at the tropical resort near SeaWorld Orlando. Guests are suited up with wet suits and a dive helmet connected to that precious air supply. Remember, keep breathing.
You don't have to be a certified scuba diver to participate in SeaVenture. In fact, it could be considered a low-fuss, high-reward introduction to diving. Thanks to that helmet, you don't even get your hair wet.
Before stepping into the water, Discovery Cove workers and divers put SeaVenturers through a brief training session that explains hand signals, how the helmet operates, how to "pop" your ears and other underwater procedures.
Here's where I realized that water could, indeed, splash up onto my neck and chin during the trip. I don't know why I thought I was going to be in an airtight uniform suitable for space travel. Nope, the helmet rests on your shoulders, and there's room for water to head for your head. The compressed air does the trick and keeps all at bay.
One last water tip: It's nippy in there, take-your-breath-away nippy when you step in. Discovery Cove says the water in the Grand Reef is 77 degrees, but I say "Brrrrr!"
SeaVenture guests go down a ladder, and when they are in up to their shoulders, the helmet is lowered over their heads (dry hair intact). On land, the contraption weighs about 70 pounds, but in the water, it feels like it's about 15 pounds, Discovery Cove officials say.
At this point, prepare for sensory overload: Chilly waters, funky-looking helmet on, ears popping as the water level creeps overhead, Darth Vader-ish sound of air pumping in. Bare feet step off the last rung onto a sandy bottom, where other divers await, and then, wham! — lots of colorful fish in your face. Grand Reef has 8,000 animals.
It's surreal, like the best high-definition television ever.
After you get your bearings and adapt to walking in slow-motion like an astronaut, Discovery Cove divers lead your group along a handrail.
First stop: Sharks. They look nonchalant, and we can appear equally relaxed because they are behind a giant clear window. It's so unobtrusive that it looks like you could swim right over with them.
Our guide writes on an erasable board to identify the various breeds of sharks. In another area we see poisonous fish behind the glass.
Groups typically get hands-on experiences with the sea life. I held a pin-cushion urchin, which wasn't quite as prickly as it sounds. A small hermit crab also was offered to me, but it wouldn't crawl over to my hands.
"Sometimes he's crabby," wrote our guide.
All this built up to the most visually stunning moment of SeaVenture. The guide opened a container of fish food to a brightly colored swarm of fish. One aggressive creature swam directly into the container for that good-to-the-last-drop bite.
SeaVenture is a $60 add-on to standard Discovery Cove ticket. The experience lasts 20 to 30 minutes, long enough to get pruney fingers.
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What: Underwater exploration of Discovery Cove's new Grand Reef area
Where: 6000 Discovery Cove Way, Orlando
When: 9 a.m.-5:30 p.m. daily
Cost: $59 (plus Discovery Cove admission)
What else: Discovery Cove requires divers to be 10 years old. Guests younger than 14 must be accompanied by a paying companion.