The thought of diving into a shark-infested tank would be enough to bring most out in a cold sweat, but for Hopwood Hall College student Harriet Barker getting her feet wet with eight of the predators was just another exciting step towards a career in wildlife conservation, writes Paul Offord.
Fancy taking a swim with some fearsome tiger sharks, or perhaps a nurse shark and a black tip reef shark? What about getting up close and personal with a white tip reef shark and a bamboo shark?
For most, including those who’ve never even seen Jaws, the answer would be no.
But 18-year-old Harriet Barker jumped at the chance.
The level three animal management student at Hopwood Hall College, in Rochdale, was offered a two-month placement at the Blue Planet Aquarium, in Ellesmere Port, Cheshire, after taking the plunge with two impressed safety divers.
“Sharks are wild animals so you can’t know how they are going to behave, but I wasn’t nervous to be in there with them, just really excited,” she told FE Week.
“There were about eight sharks in there. They were tiger sharks, a nurse shark, a black tip reef shark, a white tip reef shark, and a bamboo shark — which are all potentially dangerous to humans.
“There was also a spotted eel swimming around and they can dangerous too — but the professional divers communicated with me throughout using hand signals and I knew 100 per cent that they would be able to get me out if I got into any problems.”
Harriet, a qualified advance open water diver, also went on a tour of tour of the aquarium and further impressed staff.
She said: “I kept asking really awkward questions, like: ‘What is the PH or salt content per gallon of water?’
“The man showing me around asked if I was studying marine biology. I said it was part of my college course and I was just interested because I love marine animals.
“He must have been quite impressed as he took me to meet his boss and they asked if I wanted to do a work placement.”
Sarah Whitehurst, life sciences lecturer at the college, said: “Harriet was very brave to swim with sharks, but I think it’s her thirst for knowledge that keeps on pushing her to find out more about the animals around us.”
The placement, which Harriet said she was likely to complete over the summer, will include feeding sharks, eels, and other marine wildlife including sting rays, star fish, and sea horses.
But taking a walk (or a dive) on the wild side is nothing new for Harriet.
Her interest in wildlife was sparked ten years ago when her mum, Joanne, aged 37, and dad, Paul, 40, took her to an animal sanctuary in Pinnala, Sri Lanka, and later on safari in Tsavo, South Africa.
Her next big adventure will be volunteering in July and August at a South African game reserve, where she will track endangered animals and join gamekeepers in protecting them from poachers.
She said: “My friends don’t know how I have any free time, with all the wildlife work I do, but they love hearing about my experiences.
“They say I’m mad because I’m not scared of doing things like swimming with sharks, but I really enjoy it.”
Harriet is in her final year at college and has been given an unconditional offer to a study wildlife conservation and zoo biology degree at Salford University.
Cap: Harriet Barker (front right) with two safety divers looking up at a grey tipped reef shark at Blue Planet Aquarium