Shark Therapy: Wounded Soldiers Learn Coping Skills in Shark Tank

JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD, Wash. --

The four soldiers who stood over the shark tank knew what creatures lurked below. But as large flashes of gray streaked across the dark water, they willingly dove in to see if what many find terrifying could actually be therapeutic.

Instructor helping soldier out of shark tank.
Army Spc. Jessica Knoerr holds a diving instructor's hand as she enters the shark tank during an Operation Shark Dive program at Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium in Tacoma, Wash., Aug. 10, 2017. The program gives ill, injured and wounded soldiers the opportunity to swim with sharks. Army photo by Spc. Erica Earl
Instructor helping soldier out of shark tank. Shark Therapy: Wounded Soldiers learn coping skills in a shark tank
Army Spc. Jessica Knoerr holds a diving instructor's hand as she enters the shark tank during an Operation Shark Dive program at Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium in Tacoma, Wash., Aug. 10, 2017. The program gives ill, injured and wounded soldiers the opportunity to swim with sharks. Army photo by Spc. Erica Earl

The directors of Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium's Operation Shark Dive in Tacoma, Washington, have been working with ill, injured or wounded soldiers here in a program that helps soldiers heal physically and emotionally by diving with sharks.

Operation Shark Dive is one of several programs soldiers can participate in while assigned to the Warrior Transition Battalion, a unit designed for soldiers to recover from injury, illness or trauma as they work to transition back to regular Army units or civilian life.

Adaptive Sports

The dive is part of the battalion's adaptive sports program, a diverse program that offers on- and off-post activities for wounded soldiers to stay active and engaged in the community. The adaptive sports program also satisfies their physical training requirements.

Brian Caskin, a physical therapy assistant for the battalion at Madigan Army Medical Center here, said the dive is primarily designed for learning breathing techniques. The process of controlling one's breath in the tank mimics yoga and meditation breathing exercises, "with a more interesting view," he explained.

"It is good practice for staying calm and for breathing control," Caskin said. "They are addressing a fear while being forced to control their breathing."

Army Staff Sgt. Jose Parra, Sgt. Steve Wurth and Spc. Jessica Knoerr are no strangers to overcoming fear. They've each overcome their own obstacles, including a traumatic vehicular accident for one of the soldiers.

None of them had even been snorkeling before they dove into the shark tank. The program gave them the opportunity to don a dry suit and respirator and submerge themselves in a tank, just an arm's length away from five different species of sharks.

'Surreal Experience'

Parra said swimming so close to sharks is surreal. "It's definitely a check off the bucket list," he said. "I didn't think I'd be checking off something like this."

The partnership with Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium began in February, and since then, the WTB has offered monthly dives. There are plans to conduct two dives per month starting in September, Caskin said.

David Todd, a member of the shark dive team at Point Defiance, said the program aims to teach participants that sharks are vital to ocean life and are not the fearsome creatures of gory cinema.

"The experience is meant to be mesmerizing, rather than high-adrenaline," Todd said. "We've all seen "Jaws," and most people would say sharks are intimidating, but some of the sharks are even timid around the 4-inch-long damselfish in the tank."

Despite the tame nature of the sharks at Point Defiance, participants must stay in a cage during the dive.

Shark swimming past soldier watching in underwater cage.
A shark swims under Army Sgt. 1st Class Erica Graham during an Operation Shark Dive program at Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium in Tacoma, Wash., Aug 10, 2017. Army photo by Spc. Erica Earl
Shark swimming past soldier watching in underwater cage. Shark Therapy: Wounded Soldiers learn coping skills in a shark tank
A shark swims under Army Sgt. 1st Class Erica Graham during an Operation Shark Dive program at Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium in Tacoma, Wash., Aug 10, 2017. Army photo by Spc. Erica Earl

Todd said staying in the cage is a matter of safety for the divers so staff can ensure the respirators work, as breathing with the equipment does not come naturally to everyone. He added that prohibiting the divers from roaming the tank is a safety measure for the sharks and coral as well.

Taking the Initiative

The pre-dive preparation includes a small course on the types of sharks in the tank and the importance of ocean conservation as well as the ecological role of sharks and other sea life. At the end of the dive participants are encouraged to sign a pledge to protect the ocean and help keep it clean.

The tank holds blacktip reef sharks, Japanese wobbegong sharks, sandbar sharks, nurse sharks -- the heaviest in the tank at 350 to 400 pounds -- and sand tiger sharks -- which are the most timid of the sharks in the tank, Todd said.

Army Sgt. 1st Class Erica Graham, a platoon sergeant for the WTB who also participated in the dive, said the opportunities are available for soldiers to have adventures and experiences like this, but participating takes initiative on the soldier's part.

"It's up to them to take advantage of the opportunities," she said, "This one was about conservation and a sport that soldiers with injuries can participate in, and there's a lot more out there for those who want to do it."

Operation Shark Dive is free to all soldiers in the WTB, and soldiers need only to sign up through their platoon sergeants or through the adaptive sports program desk to participate.

Point Defiance also runs a program for the public called the Eye-to-Eye Shark Dive that began in 2013. It is similar to Operation Shark Dive, but it is not free and the course and time in the tank are condensed.