First Published in The New York Times
Where Sleigh Bells Gurgle, Santa Swims With Sharks
NEWPORT, Ky., Dec. 7 - Calvin Freeman, age 4, has a question for Scuba Santa. "Do you only have nice sharks in there?" Calvin asks, pointing to a toothy, 270-pound tiger shark swishing past Santa's underwater sleigh. "Because some sharks chew people's legs off. They're bad sharks."
"Ho-ho-ho!" Scuba Santa laughs, then sucks a low, bubbly breath of air from his tank. "Ooh, yes, these are all very nice sharks!"
Calvin appears relieved. He asks a second question: "Do you remember me, Santa Claus?"
Scuba Santa dives five times a day into the 385,000-gallon shark tank at the Newport Aquarium here. The tradition started three years ago, when the aquarium was searching for ways to increase attendance during the normally slow holiday season.
"Why not stick Santa into the shark tank?" said Jill Isaacs, an aquarium spokeswoman.
To avoid being eaten, Santa takes several precautions. He checks his arms and legs before each show to be sure he has no open, bleeding cuts. Once in the water he keeps his hands close to his body and makes no sudden moves; if Santa were to wave quickly, a passing shark could mistake his flopping, white-gloved hand for a wounded fish.
The subsequent interaction would no doubt prove emotionally scarring for the dozens of children in the audience.
Most important, Santa makes sure the sharks receive their regular meals, which consist of green peas and pink squid served once every four days.
"Santa thinks it's a good idea to keep the sharks well fed, especially when Santa's in here," said the aquarium's top Santa, Ed Evans, one of five scuba divers who play the role.
Getting Santa underwater required some technical improvisation. First, the aquarium designed a dive suit. Made of thick red neoprene and fuzzy white fringe, it includes a red dive cap topped by a white ball.
The aquarium uses a commercial-grade dive mask to maintain a pocket of air in front of Santa's face. This allows him to speak through a microphone and hear through speakers embedded in the mask straps. A white elastic band wrapped around the mask prevents Santa's beard from floating off.
As any well-informed 4-year-old knows, Santa has no business swimming in an aquarium across the Ohio River from Cincinnati, especially just a few weeks before Christmas. So each Scuba Santa presentation begins with a 30-second cartoon that shows Santa's reindeer escaping. With help from his magical seahorse friends, Santa finds them at the bottom of the sea.
Suddenly, the movie screen rises, and there is Scuba Santa, hovering 10 feet underwater behind a wall of acrylic six inches thick. The children in the audience gasp, as do many of their parents.
"It's an awesome moment, seeing all those faces light up," Mr. Evans said. "Even a lot of the adults are surprised."
loating next to Santa is his elf, Snowflake, dressed in a green-and-red costume over a black dive suit. Snowflake's primary task is to alert Santa of nearby sharks.
Their most frequent visitor is Sweet Pea, a shark ray, who resembles a stingray crossed with a crocodile. Sweet Pea, who weighs 50 pounds and someday will weigh over 250, is the first member of her endangered species to be held in captivity in the Western Hemisphere. She spends most of her time during the scuba event swimming circles around Snowflake's flippers.
At the end of a recent show, Sweet Pea rammed Santa like a Labrador retriever greeting its master at the door. Santa grabbed the shark ray by her snout and jammed a fist-size hunk of lobster into her mouth.
"We serve only grade-A, restaurant-quality seafood," said Mark Dvornak, the aquarium's aquatic director. "We like to say that the fish here eat better than we do."
As long as the sharks are not hungry, the biggest threat to Santa and Snowflake is actually Denver, a 400-pound loggerhead sea turtle. In a show last week, Denver made a quick dive, sneaked up behind Santa and tried to steal his bright red hat.
The turtle has succeeded in this game many times, jeopardizing the fragile state of suspended disbelief that keeps mature 7- and 8-year-olds barely within the fold of Santa believers. (What would they think if the giant turtle were to abscond not only Santa's with hat, but also with his curly white wig?)
Snowflake, played during that show by the dive program director, Jennifer Wolfe, thwarted this near-disaster by kicking hard with her flippers and shooting toward Santa, catching Denver just under his chin with her hand. Ms. Wolfe stuck a piece of white plastic pipe, painted with red stripes like a candy cane, into Denver's mouth. The turtle happily gnawed on it as Santa and Snowflake scratched his neck.
In two minutes the giant beast had fallen asleep on the sandy aquarium floor. Mr. Evans continued with the show.
"Help me out, kids," he said, his voice scratchy and distant through the microphone. "What do you think I should get the jellyfish for Christmas?"
"Peanut butter!" said Alex Covington, 3.
"That's a good idea!" Mr. Evans said. Later, he asked, "Now, what do you think I should get for my turtle friend here, Denver?"
"An underwater crossbow!" yelled Calvin Freeman.
For a moment, the auditorium was silent. Then Scuba Santa laughed: "Well, that's the first time I've heard that idea! Ho-ho-ho!"