The Disney cast member
staring at me has puffy cheeks and bulging eyes. His hardened, thick lips move
his mouth open and closed as he inspects me with a look of indifference.

But I’m not intimidated; in fact, I’m intrigued. It’s not every
day that you come face-to-face with a Goliath grouper, especially one that
spends his days entertaining visitors at Disney World.

My new marine friend is part of Epcot’s Living Seas, said to be
the world’s largest saltwater aquarium. The 6 million-gallon (22 million liter)
tank is home to more than 65 species of marine life, including rays, sharks and
some 2,000 fish.


Each year, millions of visitors stream past the well-done
exhibit at the Orlando-based theme park, exclaiming over sea turtles and
pointing out sharks, but very few experience this micro-world beneath the
surface of the water.

I just happen to be one of the lucky ones taking part in
Disney’s DiveQuest, a little-known program that allows certified divers to don a
tank and dive into this aquatic world.

All my family and I had to bring to the experience were our
swimsuits and dive-certification cards. Disney did the rest. Upon arrival, we
were fitted with top-of-the-line wet suits and dive gear. Then our dive master,
Justin Delude, gave our small dive group (kept to a maximum of 12 divers) an
orientation on the kinds of sea life we would be viewing.

Then finally, it was time to get into the water. Though my
family and I had earned our dive certifications back in our land-locked home
state of Colorado, this was to be our very first “sea” dive — and we couldn’t
wait to jump in.

“DiveQuest is a great place for beginning divers,” Delude
had told us as we donned our tanks and readied to step into the water. “There is
no current to contend with, and no visibility or weather problems.”


Delude was right. For my daughters, aged 11 and 14, the dive
seemed a perfect introduction to the world of diving. Even experienced divers
enjoy DiveQuest, though. With the diverse array of marine life in the
27-foot-deep (8.23 m) tank, divers see more in one dive than one would
see during multiple ocean dives.

We can’t help but be thrilled as we explore the tank. At first,
we follow our dive master as he points out certain marine life or formations
around the tank. Then we head out to explore on our own. The Goliath grouper,
just inches from my mask, looks at me for almost a minute before moving on. Then
a huge sea turtle floats gracefully past, and a school of large gray fish swirl
in circles below our feet.

While the sea life is amazing, that’s only half of the fun. At
DiveQuest, you’re not only in the exhibit, you are the

Land-based visitors can see the aquarium and divers from the
Coral Reef Restaurant, which has large viewing windows. Other guests visit the
Living Seas exhibit, which offers a seven-minute theater presentation and then
“hydrolators,” which take guests to a simulated ocean floor to view the marine

My youngest daughter quickly discovers the viewers on the other
side of the glass. She swims down in front of one little boy, placing her hands
near his on the window. Several other little viewers take notice, and soon my
daughter is performing somersaults and other aerobic tricks for the young
audience on the other side of her own little aquatic stage.

One of the other divers has family sitting at a booth in the
Coral Reef Restaurant, and they take pictures of him and wave. DiveQuest offers
the rare opportunity for divers to share the experience with non-diving family

As with most Disney experiences, there is a photographer on
hand to capture our day on film. Underwater videographer Jim Wilhelm motions for
us to gather together for an underwater family photo, and then films us as we
discover Disney’s marine realm.

DiveQuest is different from other Disney World
attractions in that it is a non-profit organization. All profits from DiveQuest
go to the Disney Wildlife Conservation Fund, an organization that studies and
works to help protect the world’s wildlife and ecosystems. The organization
supports everything from new elephant habitats in Africa to the rehabilitation
of orphan chimpanzees in the Congo. Knowing that our dive fee is helping to
preserve nature’s bounty is another plus to our dive experience.


As my husband and I hover weightlessly in the water,
an 8-foot (2.4 m) Sand Tiger shark saunters past just two feet in front of us.
Its long body is lean and muscular, but he eyes us with disinterest and then
moves on.

“Did you see that?” I pantomime to my hubby, eyes wide
with excitement. It’s then that I learn another little-known fact of diving:
It’s hard to keep a regulator in your mouth when it’s covered with a big, wide