“People can’t interact with fish,” Taylor says. “Fish just swim by. But divers can blow bubbles, high-five, do rock-paper-scissors. Kids, adults, everybody loves it. Plus, a lot of people are baffled to see sharks and divers swimming easily side by side.”

There are some serious underpinnings to these programs too. Scuba dive in the Downtown Aquarium’s Sunken Shipwreck exhibit, and you are welcome to help yourself to any shark teeth you find. You’re also encouraged to leave a donation for the Aquarium’s shark-conservation program. (In a case of man bites dog, it might surprise you to learn that man kills between 30 million and 100 million sharks a year, leading to precipitous declines in the populations of many shark species.)

It’s also no coincidence that Monterey’s Underwater Explorers program says it is “inspiring the next generation of ocean stewards.” Today, a young mind is bewitched by a sea star. Tomorrow, who knows?

Gazing down into the Great Tide Pool, I witness numerous evolutions from uncertain to unequivocally hooked, but none is more striking than Bethany’s. Before the dive, Bethany looked every bit the anxious 12-year-old from landlocked Sacramento. Postdive, she harbors new memories and a mile-wide smile.

And what did you think of that world, which in the end is so much a part of our world?

“It was good,” Bethany says. “It was very good.” She thinks for a moment and then smiles even wider.

Quietly, she adds, “I’d rather live underwater than on land.”

Ken McAlpine’s latest book, Islands Apart: A Year on the Edge of Civilization, was published last summer.


SWIMMING WITH THE FISH — THE BASICS

For sanitary reasons, most aquariums provide all the gear (mask, fins, tank, dry suit or wet suit, buoyancy device, regulator, etc.), though some will let you use your own mask after they disinfect it. Divers need to show a certification card from a recognized scuba agency. Snorkeling, swimming, and some introductory scuba courses require no certification. Program lengths vary, but generally they run from 90 minutes to two and a half hours (this usually includes an educational overview and backstage tour, gearing up, and the dive itself). Expect to spend 30 to 45 minutes in the water (water temperatures range from the mid-50s at the Monterey Bay Aquarium to the mid-70s elsewhere). Prices range from about $75 (for snorkeling) to $325 (for diving) per session. The price generally includes aquarium admission and a packet of fun goodies (T-shirts, souvenir photos, and logbooks).

AQUARIUMS

ADVENTURE AQUARIUM
Camden, New Jersey, (856) 365- 3300, www.adventureaquarium.com

DOWNTOWN AQUARIUM
Denver, Colorado, (303) 789-2450, www.divedowntown.com

THE FLORIDA AQUARIUM
Tampa, Florida, (813) 273-4015, www.flaquarium.org

GEORGIA AQUARIUM
Atlanta, Georgia, (404) 581-4000, www.georgiaaquarium.org/swimordive

MONTEREY BAY AQUARIUM
(Note: The Underwater Explorers program is only offered during the summer; it will resume in June.) Monterey, California, (831) 647-6886, www.mbayaq.org/underwaterexplorers

NATIONAL AQUARIUM IN BALTIMORE
Baltimore, Maryland, (301) 519-9283, www.aqua.org

WALT DISNEY WORLD EPCOT DIVEQUEST
Orlando, Florida, (407) 939-8687, disneyworld.disney.go.com