An up-close encounter with a 400-pound lemon shark might sound scary, but that’s part of the reason Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium is opening its Eye-to-Eye Shark Dive.

The new permanent exhibit, built into its existing 240,000 gallon South Pacific Aquarium, will offer scuba and cage diving for those ages 8 and up five days a week beginning Friday. With 17 sharks, it will be the largest warm water dive in the Pacific Northwest.

“We want the public to know that sharks are fascinating, awesome and misunderstood animals,” explained public relations coordinator Kris Sherman. “Whenever we can get people close to animals, we do. They get a chance to see them firsthand and see how beautiful they are.”

The aquarium will offer experiences for both certified and uncertified divers.

Non-certified divers ages 8 and up can participate in an underwater cage dive. Certified divers ages 15 and up can do a scuba dive with a guide. The dives last about 20 and 30 minutes, respectively, not including training and an after-dive educational presentation.

The whole experience, though, is designed to be enlightening.

“Our principal motivation to do this is because we are a conservation organization,” explained deputy director John Houck. “We want to tell the story of what’s happening to sharks. Upwards of 100 million sharks are harvested annually. We don’t think this is the story most people understand.”

The message isn’t sugarcoated, but it’s mixed with the fun and thrill of the dive.

More than 350 people have signed up since registration opened mid-September — enough to occupy the exhibit for a full month, although most of the advanced bookings have been scheduled on weekend days.

The exhibit, open Thursdays through Mondays, can accommodate 16 divers per day — eight cage divers and eight scuba divers — who go into the tank in groups of four.