NORWALK, Conn. -- Santa Claus swam with the sharks Sunday at the Maritime Aquarium at Norwalk. And, no, Rudolph wasn't there.
In an unusual holiday tradition and to the delight of crowds at Fairfield County's biggest tourist attraction , a scuba-diving Santa takes a turn diving in the shark tank.
Randy Carford, a dive team leader at the aquarium, said patrons really enjoy the sight.
"A lot of people come just to see Santa," he said. "They like to go to the mall and see Santa, but now you get to see Santa in an aquarium with sharks -- diving. It's pretty cool, I think."
Santa is just one of the many volunteer divers who help the aquarium with its programming involving the sharks.
The tank hosts four male and four female sand tiger sharks and a lemon shark, all of which are 6 to 9 feet long, Carford said. The sharks share the tank with a variety of fish.
Lemon sharks tend not to swim north of New Jersey and would not be in the area of Long Island Sound with the sand tiger sharks, he said.
"Diving with sharks is really neat," Carford said. "When I first started diving, I was constantly looking over my shoulder thinking that every shark in the ocean was sneaking up on me."
It's a unique experience for a diver to get up close and personal with the sharks at the aquarium, Carford said. Aquarium visitors can get a close look at the sharks, too, in the darkened viewing area. Patrons peer right in at the tank below water level and can see the sharks swimming about. And a special time during the holidays, they can see Santa swimming, too.
"To be able to dive in an environment like this with nine full-size sharks in such close proximity is just the neatest thing," he said.
It's rare that a diver gets the chance to see sharks up close, he said. Carford said he has gone on numerous dives off Rhode Island and Florida and rarely sees one in the open waters of Long Island Sound and the Atlantic Ocean.
"It's really hit or miss," he said.
He has been out on four shark dives off Rhode Island and saw sharks only once. He has also dived extensively off Florida and estimates he may see one shark every 10 dives. Even then, the sharks keep their distance, not like the sharks at the aquarium.
"Here, I have been bumped off the rock by a shark before. They come right close to you and they are not aggressive," he said.
The tank, which holds 110,000 gallons of water, is 45 feet long, 25 feet wide and 18 feet deep.
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