Swimming with Whale Sharks
After seeing a show all about the Georgia Aquarium on PBS, I knew they offered a “swim with the gentle giants” experience, in which people could snorkel with whale sharks, manta rays, and other sharks.
Uhhhh girl in love with sharks majoring in marine biology?!?! OF COURSE I put it on my bucket list!
So, December 2012, my parents surprised me with a Christmas gift unlike any other– a chance to live my dream and swim with whale sharks!!
What?! Sharks?! You’re crazy, Alex!
Yes, I’ll be the first to admit, I’m a loon. But hear me out! 🙂
Although whale sharks are the largest fish in the ocean, they’re planktivores, meaning they only filter feed on microscopic organisms. Technically, you could fit in their mouth, but humans are the last thing they’d want to nosh.
And, counter to popular belief, sharks do not attack humans out of sheer maliciousness. Most of the time, attacks occur because sharks have poor eyesight and rely on their other senses to hunt. When the water is murky, or if something at the surface is splashing around in a similar fashion to their prey, their instinct is to “feel” their food with their mouths; almost like hands. When they bite and it’s not what they were expecting, they don’t keep attacking like movies portray. Unless they are malnourished–they typically release the “would-be” prey and go on their way. Without them in the ocean, ecosystems and food chains would completely collapse. So don’t hate on the sharks, they’re cool dudes to have around and play a major role in oceanic life. 🙂
Ahh there I go again, getting all nerdy, chattery and side-tracky. Back to the story!
The wait was finally over! During spring break in 2013, we traveled to Atlanta to visit the Georgia Aquarium and have the experience of a lifetime.
The aquarium itself was incredible. Hands down the best one I’ve been to in the US. The exhibits were so clean and they had an amazing variety of species present–from sandtooth tiger sharks to sturgeons; manta rays to guitarfish; lionfish to belugas; almost anything you could think of, they had. I’ll let some pictures do the talking.
The main attraction was the Ocean Voyager exhibit.
Here are some fun facts about it!
- Features Trevalle jacks, stingrays, goliath grouper, guitarfish, several sharks, the ONLY manta rays in a U.S. aquarium (4 of them!), and 4 WHALE SHARKS!
- Contains over six million gallons of saltwater
- 4,574 square feet of viewing windows
- 100-foot-long underwater tunnel
- The second largest viewing window in the world at 23 feet tall by 61 feet wide
We took our time going through the long tunnel, gasping at the magnitude of the creatures swimming above our heads.
And then we entered the main viewing room.
It was absolutely spellbinding. Never in my life have I been so awestruck seeing God’s creation swimming so effortlessly in the tank. The atmosphere in the room was quiet, only kids squealing with glee that a manta ray was swimming next to them. You could tell the presence of the whale sharks brought on a new appreciation and respect in the hearts of the viewers.
After witnessing such a wonderful tank, I was even more excited to swim with them!
My mom took over camera duties as my dad and I went to the swimming orientation. Our dive would begin after the aquarium closed to the public.
In the pre-swim meeting, we got our wetsuits, watched a video on whale shark etiquette, and were released to go change into our swimsuits.
The pool was MASSIVE!! My dad and I were getting so excited as we saw the sharks skim the surface.
We all got in the water and followed our dive leader around the perimeter of the tank, staying near the surface and making sure to keep our hands by our sides the whole time. They didn’t want people touching the animals. Other members of the crew filmed our experience and took pictures, and guides took my mom to the Ocean Voyager exhibit so she could watch us and get pictures, too.
I remember being overwhelmed at what to look at in the water. The manta rays danced magically through the exhibit, and jacks sped by in their large schools. The only sound was my own breathing echoing in my snorkel. It was so peaceful to just float amongst such beautiful creatures.
About mid-way through the swim, I found myself wondering where all of the whale sharks had gone. Next thing I know, I felt a nudge on my shoulder and a muffled “URRNNNNGGGHHHH!!!!!!!” I looked at my dad swimming next to me to see him pointing with HUGE eyes below us.
One of the whale sharks swam DIRECTLY beneath us and skimmed our stomachs. Inadvertently, I started reaching my hand out, in awe, to touch the shark, but I quickly remembered the aquarium protocol and made sure to keep my hands to my body. The massive, white-speckled body of cartilage slowly drifted inches beneath us and eventually decided to dive down and take a lap around the pool. My dad and I agreed it was definitely a “butterfly in the stomach” moment.
The dive was SO fun, it felt like it was only 5 minutes, so we were sad to leave.
After changing, we met my mom back in the orientation room, watched the video they’d filmed of us and got our T-shirts and group photos. The evening was spent recalling all of the magnificent things we’d witnessed that day 🙂
It was definitely a day I’ll never forget. Not only was it a blast to spend time viewing some of my favorite creatures, but also to be with my parents. I feel truly blessed to have had such a cool opportunity!
I encourage each and every one of you to visit the Georgia Aquarium one day, and do the swim if you’re feeling up for an extra dose of adventure! 😀