If you ever want a cool, heart-pounding adventure, try diving with the largest fish that ever existed, the behemoths of the sea: whale sharks. Keep reading to find out the best place to dive with whale sharks….
These fabulous bus-sized creatures weigh in on average at 45,000 pounds, are around 40 feet in length, and have a life span of 70 years. It is the biggest in sheer size in the animal kingdom (as the largest living non-mammalian vertebrate) and would rival many of the largest dinosaurs in weight. This species has been around for about 60 million years. They obviously have this longevity thing worked out.
I figured it was time I went face to face with one and no matter what happened, I’d have one hell of a fish story to tell! Ah but where to encounter one? Mexico? Honduras? Australia? The list goes on of open water encounters, which are all far away and expensive, and I wanted inexpensive and a guarantee, so I chose the Georgia Aquarium.
A Partner to Dive with Whale Sharks
According to the Guinness Book of World Records, the Georgia Aquarium is the largest aquarium in the western hemisphere. It’s filled with more aquatic life than any other aquarium in the world–120,000 animals in 8.5 million gallons of water.
And the Georgia Aquarium just happens to have an animal encounter called, “Journey with the Gentle Giants” featuring, not one, but three of our beloved Whale Sharks.
Now all I had to figure out was who would go on this adventure with me.
I asked my son, Spencer. “Mom, its mouth alone is five feet! You’re 5’2, a perfect fit.”
I argued, “Yeah but they are filter feeders; they are not interested in me. Besides, their throat is the size of a quarter. The worst they could do is gum me to death.” Spencer rolled his eyes and walked away.
Then it hit me. My childhood best friend, Viv, would do it! She’s a career scientist, the one who got me into scuba diving, and we’re always looking for exciting ways to spend our birthdays together since we are only a day apart. I tossed out the idea; she took the bait, and we planned our weekend excursion.
Most Dangerous Fish in the Tank
The cool thing about the aquarium dive is that there are other sharks in the tank as well, such as the blacktop reef shark, sandbar shark, zebra shark, (that’s a whole lot of sharks right there!) Then there were also manta rays, southern stingrays, lesser devil rays, giant guitarfish, spotted wobbegong (which I had no idea what that was but liked saying the name) and the giant grouper.
Viv and I looked at some Youtube videos of people who had already done the encounter. We loved that all the sharks came within feet of the divers.
One particular video however caught our attention. In this video, a giant grouper (an ugly fish, with bulging eyes and swollen lips that is about the size of a Volkswagen) kept eyeing one of the divers, almost like he was stalking him. All of a sudden the grouper lunged for the diver’s head. No harm was done, but I’m sure it scared the crap out of the diver.
I turned to Viv, “Forget the sharks… it’s the groupers we have to watch out for!” Oddly enough that made us adrenaline junkies want to go even more.
Exploring the Georgia Aquarium
On the day of the dive we got to the aquarium early. Admission is included in the dive fee and we heard the aquarium is least crowded then. We checked in for our 3pm dive and just to be sure, asked one of the docents what the deal is on the attacking groupers. They are extremely territorial, she said.
Of course, anywhere near them is their territory, kind of like mobsters, so we were told, “Just to stay out of their way and you’ll be fine.”
We checked out all the exhibits at the aquarium: the dolphin show, the whale-shark feedings and the “SEA MONSTERS REVEALED: Aquatic Bodies” which is basically like the BODY WORLDS Exhibit of the Fish world.
Since Viv and I were doing the dive together, (and no cameras are allowed in the tanks so as not to contaminate the fish with outside bacteria) I entrusted my camera to Roy Goldenberg, one of the nicest volunteers, along with Tom, who worked the animal encounter desk. Roy agreed to act as our surrogate family member and take photos of us. (Thank you Roy!)
Behind the Scenes at the Shark Dive
At 3pm, our group of eight intrepid divers (Viv and I were the only females) were led to the behind-the-scenes area of the aquarium. We all sat gathered in a conference area. James Beack, our high-energy senior Dive Master and classroom instructor, gave us the do’s and don’ts of the dive, along with a quick refresher course on underwater signals.
Then we watched a short video, signed liability releases and were led to the fitting area were we were issued our sanitized gear; wet suits, fins, snorkels and tanks from their collection of hundreds of suits. The only item of our own we were allowed to bring in the tank was our mask.
It was a well-run and highly professional operation. After donning our sexy black wet suits, we were instructed to sit on the edge of the 30-foot deep tank. (A tank, by the way, that was built by Home Depot! And you thought they just did home repairs! )
Into the Tanks with the Sharks
It was now the moment of truth. We were ready to forward roll into the shark filled waters. The visitors then could observe us through the glass tunnel walkway just like the rest of the fish. One by one we rolled in. I rolled in just as a guitarfish swam by playing Jaws music.
At the bottom, we played follow-the-leader around the tank with dive master Jessica in the lead. We swam past sharks, watched the huge manta rays do flips, ducked our heads for passing whale sharks, and went up to the window and waved at the visitors. Just as we got comfortable in our underwater surroundings, out of the corner of my right eye, I spotted a grouper heading straight toward me. I tapped Viv so we would change directions. As we did, another grouper came from our left, so we veered back to the right. A third grouper joined the gang. I swear they were snickering like a bunch of high school bullies.
Hey Whale Shark, a Little Help, Please?
I tried to send telepathic messages to the peace loving whale shark above, “Hey Pal can you hurl that grouper to the other side of the tank for us? Come on, a friendly little nudge will do it.” But the whale shark just kept swimming, oblivious to my mental plea.
The thing about a fish tank is there really is nowhere to run. You get someone mad in there and you have to live with the consequences for the rest of your tank-filled life.
So, although I wanted to punch these bullies in the nose, I decided revenge is best served cold. So instead I refocused my energy on the graceful spotted giants swimming above me. After a while we adapted their philosophy and just lived life floating in the moment.
As with all great things, the awesome experience ended way too soon. In all my dives around the world, I’ve never been in one place, surrounded at one time, by so many different species of fish. It was total emersion! I wanted to stay in the tank a few more hours but the snorkelers were up next.
Back on “land” our logbooks were signed, we were handed a certificate stating we dove with the gentle giants and got a DVD to prove it. Viv and I were floating, but this time on air. We decided to celebrate our dive the only logical way we could …we dined at Legal Seafood! And in honor of the grouper bully, we ate one! The moral of the story: Don’t mess with two Italian girls from Queens. Bon Apetite!
To find out more information about the “Journey with the Gentle Giants”you can call (404) 581-4000. (Tell them the fast talker sent ya.) There are plenty of other things to do in Atlanta, including lots of free things to do in Atlanta.