Aug 2, 2014 1:26 PM by AP
NEW ORLEANS (AP) - Two charcoal-colored cownose rays glided by inches away.
A lookdown, a transparent silver fish, stared back with dark, eerie eyes.
Nearby, a spiny Caribbean lobster tiptoe along a multicolored reef.
And a scarlet-peppered graysby - a type of grouper - lingered in the depths while swirls of yellowtail snapper rushed by, paying little notice to the nearby swimmer.
The underwater tableau seemed remote and exotic. In fact, it was inside the Great Maya Reef exhibit at the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas, where those with an adventurous spirit can snorkel or scuba dive alongside wildlife, as I did.
The reef, a 30-foot tunnel with 4,200 square feet of aquatic action, was completed in March at the cost of $1 million. It interweaves Maya culture with creatures of the Caribbean.
The diving program, which kicked off in July, is an effort by the aquarium to offer a premium, interactive experience to its patrons.
"We want to immerse dive participants in the underwater world while offering an in-depth understanding of the exotic animals that thrive near one of the world's largest reefs," said Audubon Aquarium dive team coordinator Desiree Bell.
Bell said about 60 volunteer divers, who help out with cleaning tanks and feeding animals, have been able to swim in the aquarium's exhibits for more than 20 years. The staff wanted to extend that opportunity to visitors, she said.
The program is offered on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Those who are 10 and older and certified can scuba dive in the giant tank, while anyone 8 or older can snorkel.
The cost is $250 for the scuba experience and $175 for snorkeling, with all gear provided.
When I showed up at the aquarium, there was a locker with my name on it, with a wet suit, snorkel, gloves and fins inside.
Dive program coordinator Matt Holcomb prefaced our expedition with a brief informational talk about the wildlife I would encounter and the construction of the reef.
According to Holcomb, the reef is built to mirror the Great Maya Reef, which extends from the tip of Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula south to Honduras Bay.
He explained the ecological importance of coral reefs and how the delicate habitats can be easily damaged by human interaction.
The reef inside the exhibit is artificial, though, Holcomb said, so participants don't have to worry about brushing against it. All of the creatures inside are innocuous.
That didn't reduce their mystique. Even though it's a whopping 130,000 gallons, the exhibit still provides an unusually intimate experience with more than 1,000 creatures.
During my snorkel, it was easy to forget I was inside an aquarium. The only sound was the gentle monotone of my breath. Wildlife swirled and shimmied around me in a phantasmagoria of exotic colors and shapes.
Through the glass, I could see onlookers staring with wonder at the creatures in the exhibit. A handful of children waved at me from a glass portal as if they had spied an astronaut floating through space.
A solitary figure hovering above them, I was both a witness to the splendors of the ocean and, for a surreal half-hour, also a participant among them.