It makes for an odd little Christmas, in a way. But in the Lowcountry, Santa swims with the fishes.
Every afternoon, the eight sharks and 500 or so other sea creatures in the Great Ocean Tank at the South Carolina Aquarium make way for the Big Guy. Kids point and squeal, "I see him!" as the old elf in his red suit flippers past the mock coral reef, his beard waggling as wildly as it would if it were blown by the wind in the sleigh, but with fish nipping at it, just in case it's food.
"How did he get into that tank?" 4-year-old Erin Beck of Orlando, Fla., asks her mom.
"From up above. Santa always comes from above," Susan Beck wisely answers.
And he does. Volunteer divers like Terry Heinz of Johns Island work Santa into the scuba gear above the 42-foot deep tank. Aquarium educator Kathy Kowlachick primes him on the answers he'll need to give for her program. Santa's got the list, he nods. He checks it twice. Then he gives Kowlachick a last glance before mouthing the respirator.
"If Santa gives you that look, you know, that panicked look, you go right over that answer," he says. That's important. In the early days of scuba Santa, one diver improvised an aside — "Hope the sharks don't eat the reindeer" — that brought gasps from the audience.
Santa bubbling and floating around has a weird Christmasy feel, like one of those snow globes. Kids love him. Three-year-old Zoe Coatsworth of Charleston backs off shyly when Santa puts his gloved hands against the glass, but eases up and puts her hands up on the other side of the glass with his. Then she lifts one hand, waves and smiles.
They're not the only ones. No sooner than Santa readies to dive, Caretta, the tank's iconic loggerhead turtle, comes up to nuzzle.
"Ah," Santa beams, "My reindeer." Some reindeer. Caretta weighs 280 pounds, he tells the kids later through his face mask microphone. "She's almost as heavy as Santa."