Have you ever found yourself walking around an aquarium and wishing you were on the other side of the glass? Do you want a more up-close and personal experience than a traditional walk through can offer? Have you ever wanted to go snorkeling without having to leave the continental US?!
Now you can thanks to the “Face-to-Face Snorkel Program” offered by the Oregon Coast Aquarium in Newport!
Though the aquarium is known for welcoming divers, it has recently been testing and has opened up a snorkeling experience to even the most novice inquirers. And the best part (other than getting to enjoy the sea life in a safe environment) is that all you need to bring is yourself. The program provides snorkelers with not only snorkel equipment but dry suits as well, seeing as the water is kept at a cool 45 degrees to keep the fish comfortable. “You don’t even need to bring a towel,” aquarium spokesperson Erin Paxton assures.
The tour takes place at the Orford Reef Exhibit and the Halibut Flat tanks over the course of an all-inclusive tour that takes 2.5 hours.
The tour begins with a walk through the exhibit, getting info about the animals and a short brief about what to expect when the snorkel experience begins.
Halibut Flats is the larger of the two exhibits where snorkelers will observe halibut (duh), ling cod, sturgeon, species of rock fish, sun stars, starry-eyed skate, and Cabezon. Orford Reef offers similar viewing experience in addition to wolf eels, sea anemones, and its most popular current resident: a giant Pacific octopus.
Fish mostly keep their distance in Halibut Flats, although the tank’s namesake fish tend to swim higher in the water to interact with the snorkelers. Orford Reef seems to have more fish that are relaxed and comfortable with the strangely suited people bobbing in their environment. But, as always, the rule with snorkeling remains: look, don’t touch!
Snorkelers will spend approximately one hour cumulatively actually swimming in the water.
The exhibits hold about half a million gallons of water and are 26 feet deep each. Despite cold temperatures, thermals and dry suits that cover hands, feet, and the head keep snorkelers warm. Even for those unable to swim, the suits keep them buoyant in the water, assures Mindy Cromar. “Once they get into the exhibit, snorkelers seem to completely forget they are in cold water. They get to see organisms they are not completely familiar with or have heard of, which is a completely different experience on its own.”
One of the last stops is checking out the 800,000-gallon shark infested waters of the Open Sea exhibit, though snorkelers will observe behind the safety of a gate and not actually be in the water with them.
The “Face-to-Face Snorkel Program” was actually launched last summer but it was only promoted among volunteers, staff, and their families while everyone was trained and the kinks were worked through. The aquarium has really kicked things off with the current spring break boom and made a conscious effort to get people to the aquarium to experience this one of a kind activity. The program has hosted several hundred snorkelers thus far, all without incident.
In fact, most visitors find it to be a very relaxing experience, one even referring to it as “Zen.” Since the suits help them float, they don’t even have to actively swim. They can just relax and enjoy the fish.
Similar snorkeling programs are offered at the Downtown Aquarium in Denver, Colorado as well as the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta but neither offer the dry suit experience like the Oregon Coast Aquarium.
Tom Page, an employee at the aquarium who helps the snorkelers get into the water says part of his job is reassuring people who may be initially uncomfortable either with the equipment or getting into the water. Through a little bit of chatting, he says he can help the figure out how to float, breathe through their snorkel, or be comfortable with the depth of the water. At this point, he hasn’t “heard of anyone who’s had a bad time there.” Plus, it’s such a unique experience. “It’s rare when people who are not divers get a chance to get in a dry suit and get in the cold water with animals the size we have in those tanks. It’s a little bit more exotic than a snorkeling trip off Hawaii.”
Here’s some additional information for anyone considering a visit:
- Book a spot quickly—the slots fill up fast.
- The experience is offered Saturdays and Sundays twice a day at 11 AM and 2 PM, Fridays too during spring break.
- The cost is $69.95 per person. Group discounts available.